I had several reasons to look forward to this Flux Theatre Ensemble production, among them the group’s superior past work (like The Lesser Seductions of History), and the presence of the actor-dancer Becky Byers, whom I’d go to see in pretty much anything. But this Dog Act, well directed by Kelly O’Donnell and superbly cast, turns out to be more than just good, and sharper than just fine—a by no means lesser seduction of future history.
Liz Duffy Adams’s play has been knocking around for a few years, but the theme it fingers (with delicious twists) is the timeless one of post-apocalyptic survival. The tangy, hyper-literate script progresses in normal time yet evokes the sense of a kaleidoscope.
An unspecified cataclysm has splintered the continent into warring, caste-conscious, superstitious tribes; it has also wreaked havoc on the seasons and made off with the Moon. A pair of Vaudevillians roam this dystopian world looking for audiences, as if in a post-nuclear La Strada. Baleful lighting (by Kia Rogers) and season-shifting crashes of unearthly thunder (sound design by Elizabeth Rhodes) are all that’s needed to evoke the dreary landscape; the actors’ cart, which also serves as their rough stage, constitutes the entire set (by Jason Paradine), and it’s spectacular.
Our proprietor is Rozetta Stone, a Francophone actor (is it a coincidence that Lori E. Parquet, who plays her, is from New Orleans?) with a soft heart but a penchant for the grandiloquent gesture and the Shakespearean prologue. She keeps her sulky companion, Dog (Chris Wight)—a talking canine shaped like a human—in tolerable spirits by tales of Promised Lands (or shores)—the sea (which he’s never seen) and China, where they supposedly have a big gig waiting for them. Shades of Of Mice and Men.
When they encounter another, more cynical pair of entertainers, questions of trust, loyalty, and betrayal arise and threaten as two characters’ hidden pasts begins to emerge. Of course, as entertainers, Vera Similitude (Liz Douglas) and Jo-Jo (Ms. Byers) have their own shtick: sultry but worn-down Vera can tell only the truth, while Jo-Jo supposedly only lies. Her raucously entertaining crazed fables provide welcome exclamation points in the generally stately narrative. (As usual, Ms. Byers is just amazing.)
But in this universe, shtick isn’t reserved for the stage; it’s repeated, life-size, in life.
Two Scavengers (a discrete caste, like the Vaudevillians) are tracking Jo-Jo, staking claim to her as a prize. What is the half-feral Jo-Jo, anyway—a person or an animal? How about Dog? We don’t get complete answers to such questions. Categories don’t mean what we expect in a world turned almost literally upside-down: reality and theater, human and animal, brutishness and sensitivity.
Adams elevates this world and her story by giving the characters a rollicking, gummy-sweet, half-Shakespearean patois that’s a freely flowing joy to hear, even if now and then one misses a phrase because of its unexpected nature. The language, the myths, the relics (clamshell iMac, anyone?) colorfully evoke the fulness of our present civilization, filtered through a devastating event that has thrust the survivors into a fresh, frightening reality. The meanings of the old things and the old stories are changed, subtly or severely, or even entirely lost, like the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes or the shopping list in A Canticle for Leibowitz.
As a friend put it to me, Dog Act “reminded me of why I’m in theatre.” This Flux Theatre production runs through Feb. 20 at the Flamboyan Theater at the CSV Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk St., New York. Don’t miss it.
Photos by Isaiah Tanenbaum.