True story: four-year-old boy, terrorized by abusive stepfather, runs away from home; lives with a pack of dogs; lives, more or less, as a dog; eventually, taken off the streets, is studied by fascinated sociologists and journalists.
New story: playwright Hattie Naylor spins this naturally fascinating feral-child tale into a radio play, then a compelling piece of solo theater. Nominated for an Olivier Award in the UK, the work is receiving an excellent American premiere from the Origin Theatre Company, directed concisely and inventively by David Sullivan and starring Kevin Melendez.
Melendez is a young actor blessed with the spirit and range needed to bring Ivan and his pack of dogs to life with vivid clarity. In a couple of spots near the start, Ms. Naylor’s language seems a touch too self-consciously poetic to be coming from a small boy—or even to suggest accurate remembrance from an older self. But for the most part this production treats us to a seamless fusion of performer and text, as if Mr. Melendez was born to play a boy adopted by wild dogs in the dark crannies of a city in the throes of political turmoil (it’s Yeltsin-era Russia) and economic hardship.
With nothing but two chairs and a music box, he evokes the cold snowy nights endured by so many homeless children at the time; the street drunks who offer an occasional moment of mercy; the glassy-eyed street kids numbed by glue-sniffing; dumpster-diving for scraps of food discarded by grimy factory workers; and above all, Ivan’s gradual acceptance into the dog pack and his growing love for the scruffy, resourceful, and loyal canines, especially Belka, the white dog who initially befriends him. In Ms. Naylor’s conception, during the two years Ivan spends with the dogs he lives a richly detailed and full life, with survival always uppermost in all their minds. “We know all the ways, all the secret animals ways.”
When Ivan is brought back to human society we are made keenly aware of what he’s lost, however apparently “happy” the ending may be. Ivan relates how, observing the cruel city from a distant rise, he and the dogs were able to “imagine a city of good.” Whether he ever reaches such a destination in his mind, we are left to speculate. But he leaves us with hope that he might shake the conviction, developed after living among guileless, non-abusive animals—beings who “just are”—that “all humans,” with their killing and cruelty, “are bad.”
One thing’s for sure: dogs can’t do theater. They can’t create powerful, evocative drama out of sheer language, a few sticks of furniture, and one warm body, however well-trained its owner might be. Catch this small, furry triumph of a show; it runs Thursdays through Saturdays until May 28 at the Loft at the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village, New York City.