Wednesday, June 27, 2012

D is for Dog

by Katie Polebaum
directed by Sean T. Cawelti
a Rogue Artists Ensemble Production

review by Phillip Kelly

Few shows move me to tears. The resurrected Rogue Artists Ensemble production of D is for Dog, by playwright Katie Polebaum, with a new ending that should be seen by all, and directed by Sean T Cawelti, not only did just that, but it also left me terrified, heartbroken and unnerved. The works of Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling spring to mind. Like those master writers of sci-fi, Polebaum mixes genuine laughs along the way that humanize the characters involved, making this one of the finer shows I've seen in LA to date.

From beginning to end every element sets what should be the standard for professional theatre in Los Angeles. Yes, Rogue Artists Ensemble is a company formed, run and consisting mainly of theatre designers - and it shows; the set, the lighting design, the sound design, the use of video and projection, the puppetry(!), everything here is used to heighten and nothing distracts. There is a story purpose to every element. And along with all this, wait for it, the 4 actors in the lead roles are pros and the script by Polebaum is full of "amazing" (I've used it as a noun), and thematic shenanigans that wrap and weave playfully around our culture and it's willingness to accept whatever is given to it without question. It will keep you talking and thinking for days to come.

I could stop there. That should be all that you need to see this wonder, but I'll tease a little more.

It begins as a sort of satire of 1950's television family life. Nina Silver as the June Cleaversque, Mrs. Rogers is fascinating to watch float around the stage (props to the movement coach Estela Garcia), and it's even more fun to watch her disposition crumble. Of all the characters she informs the dramatic shift most, and Silver carries that weight gracefully, never missing a beat. Guy Birtwhistle plays her perfect husband, Mr. Rogers. Only he's showing up later than normal, throwing off the very set routine for the Mrs. and their two kids; he also brings with him a few hefty secrets that have been informing and slowly freeing the children from this routine. Dick, played by Michael Scott Allen and Jane, played by Taylor Coffman are the children. Playing many years younger, Scott and Coffman are a delight to watch inhabit these 11-year-old personalities. Scott realistically grapples with the kid-ccentric idea of having too much knowledge for his wisdom to contain. It's the more subtle performance of the show, but ever so effective. On the opposite end, Coffman has made June, an erratic, hilarious, touching, haunting and down right creepy character, and every shift, sometimes happening from one second to the next, rings true and is affecting. She has the natural talent to bring June to life in a way that balances scene stealing with scene sharing. What a creation of writing, direction, and acting chops.

Birtwhistle gets one of the more amazing scenes in the show, to play against two life size, almost human entities in the form of giant puppets. It takes two things to bring those beings to life. Birtwhistle, his talent shines as he plays every moment against them with the utmost commitment. There's no winking to the audience, he bristles with fear and excitement. What puppets? To him, these are people, every fiber of them. The second of course are the talented Heidi Hilliker and Benjamin Messmer who are one with their puppet avatars, designed and built by a slew of, no doubt, equally talented designers. Hilliker and Messmer's dance is fluid and breathtaking to watch.

Thanks to Cawelti and his vision for the show, D is for Dog is the reason why in some circles they can still say theatre is holy and reverent. You sit in a dark space, the lights come up on stage and your reality is altered; you're taken to another plain of existence for a couple hours - it ever so naturally becomes a part of who you are. It's poetry. Only it didn't happen on a set 6 months ago, it's happening right in front of you, you're a part of this living, breathing, immediate entity. D is for Dog is why live theatre exists and why people should go see live theatre at any cost. To find a gem like this in a sometimes rough landscape refreshes the soul.

D is for Dog is playing at the Hudson Theatre
6539 Santa Monica Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Now - August 4th.
Thurs, Fri @ 8pm, Sat at 3pm and 8pm
Call for tickets at: 323.856.4249
It was recently part of Hollywood Fringe where it was nominated "Best Play"
For more info:
*The Hudson Theatre has a coffee shop built in, so show up a little early and enjoy their cucumber iced tea.

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