By Mark Wilk
Be the Dog
Ryderworks production of Emily Kay Liberis’ new play Be the Dog, adapted from some short stories by Dave Eggers, calls to mind the famous statement by John Stuart Mill in his essay on utilitarianism: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
The creators of this theatrical ode to canines seem to whole heartedly disagree with Mr. Mill. With Be the Dog, Ms. Liberis, and her director Jason McDowell-Green, have essentially created a morality play about the need to incorporate canine exuberance and innocence into our human lives. Forget about having affectionate feelings towards dogs … these folks are downright jealous of them! Indeed, dogs are probably the most loving, playful and giving creatures on the planet, and here is a play that keenly captures their interminably sanguine and fun-seeking spirit.
Unfortunately, the blithe and infectious attitude of the show is often undermined by the play’s rather poor construction. Those expecting to see the show which is marketed as a new play about “complicated human relationships … [seen] though the eyes of one exuberant dog,” may be disappointed to find out that the play does not live up to its advertising. It is rather a series of three completely unrelated scenes, none of which converge on the other and only one of which happens to be about a pack of stray dogs.
The first plotline involves two lifelong friends – and would-be lovers – on a vacation in Costa Rica. The second is about two brothers who try to sort out their lives after one of them has attempted suicide. And the third – and definitely the most exciting – is about some stray dogs who spend pretty much all their time running, jumping and trying to capture squirrels. The play skips back and forth randomly between these three storylines. The delicate, complicated issues faced by the humans are juxtaposed with the simple, happy lives of the dogs that derive pleasure from such simple acts as jumping over branches and creeks.
Ms. Liberis has really done a disservice to her own material by not connecting all of her characters. The show feels more like an extended scene-study series than a cohesive play; this is especially frustrating because the dialogue, itself, is quite good. There is some writing of a very high order. Each disparate human story is compelling in its own right, the characters speaking wisely, wittily and thoughtfully. Even the scenes with the dogs are wise and engaging in their own goofy way. The writing reflects the maturity of someone who’s overcome some painful obstacles and now looks back on them with twenty-twenty hindsight, capturing the humor and heartbreak of human – as well as canine – situations.
The acting is top notch. The four leads – Jared Craig, Jessica Grant, Rebecca Newman, and David Rosenblatt, all transplants from Boston University – find just the right tone for their scenes. Their portrayal of the dogs, in particular, running about the field, dodging squirrels while giddy with abandon, are priceless, and they often overshadow the more reserved interactions of their human counterparts. Here are physical actors, each with an impressive emotional range, who offer up captivating moments.
The lighting design by Nick Houfek, sound design by Keith Nolan and set design by Kenneth Grady Barker manage to capture the essence of Costa Rican beaches, hospital rooms and backwoods with hardly any props and very few costume changes.
How irksome, then, for all these wonderful elements to be undermined by the lack of dramatic structure! Some minor characters are seen briefly and then never appear again. In a play with only four actors – and gifted ones at that – some of them share surprisingly little stage time. Straggling scenes having to do with brief-encounters and one-night-stands seem to exist on their own without any significance to the plot – what little there is of one. The end result of Be the Dog is like an attractive puzzle with key pieces missing. It left me wondering what the puzzle might look like if everything were in its rightful place. To give this material its due, the creators need to play a serious game of dramaturgical connect-the-dots and turn a cheerful theatrical experiment into a candidate for a good new play. At a running time of an hour and ten minutes, I left the theatre feeling like I’d eaten a gourmet meal, but the portions were way too small. I’m eager to see this gifted team realize their obvious potential in some future work.