Near the end of Liz Duffy Adams’ wry post-apocalyptic comedy Dog Act, there’s a play within a play. It’s a violent, telescoped allegory, gleefully overacted by a ragtag vaudeville troop somewhere in a tribally splintered former America.
The problem with the new production from The Seeing Place (TSP) is that the whole two-acter feels playacted rather than lived.
This is a viscerally powerful play, as evidenced almost exactly a decade ago in a fully staged production by the Flux Theatre Ensemble. Yes, Dog Act is a whimsical-fantastical allegory. But this language-drenched, quasi-Shakespearean dark comedy has a multilayered life force that develops through its characters, its social and artistic resonances, and not least through the quirky patois Adams has concocted. Too little of that vividness comes through in the just-plain-Zoom space of TSP’s effort.
There’s ample evidence that theater companies have been adapting to the online environment with increasing success over the course of the present pandemic, aided by improving technology. TSP’s production starts out with a strike against it by using a relatively stripped-down Zoom interface that creaked with audio problems.
But it’s the artistic lapses that are the painful ones to point out. After all, one has to applaud small companies’ pursuit of their art under these circumstances.
Adams’ post-apocalyptic vision is even more pointedly apropos than it was 10 years ago. A livid tribalism has taken hold in the real U.S., making the tribal savagery of the play’s future America that much more plausible. The play’s old-style traveling vaudeville show – the props and costumes packed into a rickety cart, the entertainment catch-as-catch-can – was a brilliant conceit. As one character says, with wisdom both hyperbolic and real: “The vaudevillian is the repository of all that was and all that may be.”
In this case “all that” isn’t much, though: We meet a troupe that’s been whittled down to two. Zetta (Erin Cronican, also the director) is a perpetually cheery survivor. Dog (William Ketter) is a man voluntarily undergoing a de-evolution (so to speak) into a canine. Zetta regales Dog with tales of the sea as they inch towards a coastline on their way to a highly dubious engagement to perform for the King of China.
Along the way they meet and cautiously join forces with another pair of vaudevillians, Vera (Brandon Walker) and JoJo (Hailey Vest). These two are even more desperate, having lost their cart with all their possessions, and happy to link up. But a dark secret lurks in this dynamic. Meanwhile, Vera and JoJo are being pursued by a pair of brutish Scavengers: Coke (Jon L. Peacock), who speaks in colorful Shakespearean archaisms, and Bud (Robin Friend), who sticks mostly to the f-word.
Part of the problem may be that this is just not a very good play for Zoom. There’s little opportunity or space for Dog to, well, act like a dog – or like the weird hybrid he’s supposed to be – though that ought to be one of the most arresting elements of the story. But the acting is a problem overall. Zetta’s colorful vulgate (“and that the end on it”) feels, in Cronican’s self-conscious delivery, put-on rather than natural. Walker’s sarcastic, world-weary Vera is an edgy breath of fresh air when she first appears, but seems to lose track of the sense and timing of some of her lines as the action too-slowly proceeds. And the less said about Peacock’s hair band refugee Coke the better. Although a focus of this play can and should be the script’s playful use of Shakespearean diction, it’s mostly a dud in this production.
Sustaining a smooth theatrical narrative while connected only by electronics, unable to interact in real space, presents performers with new and tricky challenges. Meeting them will take effort and experimentation. As TSP persists they’ll rise to the occasion as other troupes have been doing.
This production does have high points, such as JoJo’s bloody, wide-eyed stories; one or two endearingly awkward musical numbers; and the tense revelation of a twist from the past. In these scenes it’s possible to briefly lose oneself in Dog Act‘s disturbingly plausible world. But for too much of the rest of the time, Adams’ punchy, atmospheric phantasmagoria is a dog with no bite.