East Bay Express, September 15, 2004
Every Dog Has His Say
Go see Dog Act for the language, not the plot.
-- BY SAM HURWITT
It's half past the end of the world, and all is not at all well. The United States has collapsed into disunited tribes, and seasons change in an instant without warning. That's just about all we know in Liz Duffy Adams' Dog Act, a new work that will move from SF's Thick House next week to become Shotgun Players' first full production at their new home, the Ashby Stage. The past apocalypse is left vague (see also: abstract, metaphorical, mythical) and is visible mostly in the recognizable remnants of the world that came before: mutant fish-squirrels, dialects of devolved colloquialisms, weapons and musical instruments patched together from junk.
Wandering through this wasteland with a stated intent of walking to the mythical land of China, are a gal and her dog, or rather traveling vaudevillian Rozetta Stone and her companion Dog, a brooding young man who has for some mysterious reason chosen to live his life as a dog. It's understood that "dog" is a perfectly acceptable calling in this society, or what passes for society, just as we're repeatedly reminded that vaudevillians are off-limits to human predators of all kinds.
And there are many kinds of predators. Most obvious are the scavengers, Road Warrior-like desperadoes who've built their entire culture out of piracy and recycling. The two we meet are a pair of boisterous yahoos named Coke and Bud, after the aluminum cans incorporated into their armor. Though it's never said explicitly, they're also clearly Lost Boys, all the more lost because their leader the Wendy has died and they lack guidance, though what this intrusion of Never-Never Land into the Waste Land is intended to portend is less clear. If it's to make us more fond of a duo who seem to exist only to kill and cannibalize and rape and plunder (come to think of it, that sounds more Cap'n Hook than Peter Pan), it has the desired effect, or very nearly.
If we like Coke and Bud, it's largely because of the way they talk, in a delightful patois composed entirely of fragments of Elizabethan English and liberal use of the word "fuck": "Fuck this, forfuckingsooth." If hearing "fuck-all" and "withal" in the same sentence fills you with glee, Adams has more linguistic treats for you. Rozetta's speech is riddled with truncated malapropisms that seem not to be unique to her but rather the way the language has become mangled over time into a colorful pidgin. Though the loquacious Zetta does most of the talking, when Dog talks he speaks in proper English, which only highlights the fact that there's nothing particularly canine about him, and that he wouldn't have picked such an ill-fitting lot in life if he weren't hiding from something.
Far fonder of ten-dollar words is Vera Similitude, whose pairing with JoJo the Bald-Faced Liar provides a skewed mirror image of Zetta and Dog. Vera is an ever-so-polite carny soothsayer who is not as she seems, except insofar as she seems from the outset to be not as she seems, which turns out to be true. JoJo, on the other hand, is exactly who she seems -- a feral child, quick with a knife and always on her guard -- only exactly where she comes from is unclear.
Rami Margron is a marvel as JoJo, an extreme version of savage childishness, snarling and petulant one moment, beaming and pumping her fist in the air the next. Best of all is when JoJo recites the folk tales she's memorized, spitting them out furiously without pause, nuance, or comprehension. C. Dianne Manning conveys a nice balance of extreme politesse and breeding with naked greed and scheming as Vera. Richard Bolster's Dog is more hangdog than anything else, sullen, wary, gentle, and stubbornly determined to behave as a dog even though he's clearly nothing of the sort. Beth Donohue exudes a warm, larger-than-life presence as Zetta, a slightly mystic hippie type who holds forth on all manner of subjects she seems to know little about, but who is a lot savvier than she lets on. Eric Burns gives Coke a classic piratical combination of leering menace and juvenile gullibility, and Dave Maier's Bud comes off as an endearingly misguided yahoo who got lost on his way to the kegger.
Stewart Polt's homemade musical instruments are impressive: a banjo made from a crutch and a sardine can, saxophones built out of different lengths of plastic plumbing, vibes made from a wrench set and a big hunk of Styrofoam. The songs themselves are less so. Vera does a decent parody of Marlene Dietrich in a German cabaret number, and Zetta delivers a sultry junkyard blues toward the end, but the songs that crop up the most start to wear out their welcome after a while. Dog and Zetta's favorites are wispy little folk tunes peppered with amiable gibberish, one of them reminiscent of a song from Twelfth Night.
What's downright brilliant is the Mortality Play, the play-within-a-play that every vaudevillian in this world knows by heart. It's beautifully bastardized, opening with a quasi-Shakespearean speech borrowing liberally from A Midsummer Night's Dream and then launching into Adam and Eve doing a "who's on first" routine about the Darwinian origin of species with healthy chunks of the Bible, The Honeymooners, and classic vaudeville and burlesque routines thrown in for good measure. There are other such moments of fractured folk culture, as when everyone sings the classic spiritual "Sing Yo, Street Harriet," but the Mortality Play is a wonder.
The plot's pretty simple when it comes right down to it -- secrets are revealed, dangers brew and bruise, and the expected array of unexpected developments develop -- and as dystopian visions of the future go, this one is very vague. We don't know why winter turns to summer in a single thunderclap, nor how the Lost Boys wound up running around talking like Ren Faire workers gone bad (which is redundant, come to think of it), and it's no doubt for the best that Adams didn't get bogged down in explaining these conceits. As Zetta says at one point, we "don't need the narrative pedigree and filigree and hoohah, hey?" You've seen one postapocalyptic wasteland, you've seen 'em all, and though Adams walks a fine line, she manages for the most part not to fall into the overly familiar. The genius of this play is not in its tense and imperfect future but in the devilish details, and most of all in the words. In the beginning was the word, after all, and in the end it justifies the meaning.