Fifteen Dogs

I saw Marie Farsi’s adaptation for the stage of André lexis novel Fifteen Dogs at Crow’s Theatre last night.  I read the book back in the fall and was impressed.  It’s a clever, witty, perceptive novel and I was very curious as to how it would translate to the stage; especial since most of the characters are dogs.  Bottom line, it works wonderfully well.

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Let’s recap a bit on the basic plot elements.  The Gods Hermes and Apollo make a bet over drinks at the Wheatsheaf tavern as to whether it is possible to “die happy”.  To test the idea they decide to give fifteen dogs at a local veterinary clinic the power of speech and a kind of human-like, but not exactly human, consciousness.  Much of the plot revolves around differences between those dogs who choose to become quasi human and those who cling (doggedly) to dogginess.  This is best exemplified by the, arguably, principal characters; Atticus and Majnoun.  The former is a sort of canine fundamentalist.  He becomes pack leader and kills or forces out all who don’t conform to his doctrine that dogs must be dogs and eschew human like behaviours, of which the most egregious is composing poetry.  He also invents a monotheistic doggy religion.  Majnoun by contrast, having not quite been rubbed out as a potential rival, forms a deep and philosophical attachment with the human, Neera, who rescues him.

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There’s much more of course.  The nature of the bet changes and both Hermes and Apollo try to game it while trying to avoid the wrath of an annoyed Zeus.  We see the essential contradictions of a strictly hierarchical pack of conscious individuals.  Various dogs explore different ways of using language both for its own sake and to create different kinds of interactions with humans.  The differences between canine and human sexuality and other basic biological functions are explored in a slightly uncomfortable but screamingly funny way.  It’s also very much a Toronto story.  As much perhaps as, say, Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion; which definitely adds a dimension for a local audience.  It’s complex and fast moving and the two and a half hours or so fly by.  How is this achieved?

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It’s partly the adaptation itself of course but I don’t think it would work without the brilliant acting and clear direction by Farsi, built around a fundamental concept of how a conscious dog is.  There’s a compelling mix of human and doggy physical acting coupled with an awkwardness of language which tracks back and forth between speech and barking/growling.  There are some clever touches too.  Everyone is multi-tasking since six actors are portraying fifteen dogs, two cats, three gods and a bunch of human and other characters as well as acting as narrators for there is a lot of “tell not show” in this piece.

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A good example of how this works is in two of the roles played by Laura Condlin.  She is Atticus’ bitch; a problematic dog; high status yet female; loyal to atticus but, of course, at the appropriate time ready to mate with any male.  She is also Neera; Majnoun’s human and the person who comes closest to understanding what has happened.  She also plays five other roles!

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There’s a real tour de force from Tom Rooney as Majnoun.  His is maybe the most complex and philosophical character and it takes some real subtlety to make this dog philosopher credible. Rooney does this and then some.  Tyrone Savage is equally good as Atticus (and doubling as Apollo).  In his Atticus persona he is draped in dead animals and becomes as doggy as can be; frightening, fanatical and violent, so maybe not entirely doggy.

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There’s a wonderful, effectively over the top, performance  by Stephen Jackman-Torkoff.  Among his roles are the dog poet Prince who sets out to explore the expressive limits of dog-speak to the disgust and anger of Atticus.  He’s also a very sparkly rockstar Zeus.  In both roles there is  an energy and a physicality that has to be seen.  It’s beyond my powers of expression.

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Mirabella Sundar Singh is Hermes (as well as various dogs).  She’s the trickster and it’s her attempts to game Apollo that often drive the plot forward.  It’s actually one of the more straightforward roles but she handles it with clarity.  Then there’s Peter Fernandes as the conniving, and possibly gay, beagle Benjy.  He’s very funny as he tries to manipulate humans and dogs before his machinations fall foul of Zeus.  Throw in a cleverly minimalist set by by Julie Fox (it’s staged “in the round”), spectacular lighting by Kimberly Purtell and thought provoking music and sound by David Mesiha and one has a pretty complete theatrical experience.  It’s certainly one of a kind!

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Fifteen Dogs runs at Crow’s Theatre until February 12th.

Photo credits: Dahlia Katz

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