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SF Bay Guardian, September 29, 2004

Life's a Bitch
O what a wicked postapocalyptic world we find in Dog Act.

-- By Robert Avila


AT THE END of Liz Duffy Adams's darkly comic The Train Play, which Crowded Fire premiered in the Bay Area in 2002, the obnoxious girl who has plagued the train's passengers for the duration of their journey is the only one to fearlessly leap out the window after they arrive, unexpectedly, at oblivion. Her preteen enthusiasm has the lust for conquest in it, an eagerness to claim the horizon opened up by catastrophe, as if coiled in her was all the energy needed to remake the world and destroy it once more. Dog Act, the New York City playwright's latest Bay Area premiere, is a "postapocalyptic vaudeville" staged by the Shotgun Players that takes up where The Train Play left off: at the proverbial end of the line. Here, among the ruins of what was once the United States, a man who would rather be a dog implicitly answers the superchild's unbridled appetites with wary and knowing restraint.

So what does the end of the world look like? Warring, marauding tribes make up the future United States, you will be unsurprised to learn. A sacred prohibition against harming vaudevillians, however, affords Rozetta Stone (Beth Donohue) and Dog (Richard Bolster) a modicum of protection as they crisscross this Darwinian landscape, singing songs and pulling their colorful sideshow cart behind, on their way to a mythical promised land called China. En route they meet a fairly friendly but secretly scheming duo, the pompous Vera Similitude (C. Dianne Manning) and her touchy, untamed ward JoJo, the Bald-faced Liar (Rami Margron). Tracking these last two, meanwhile, are two brutish scavenger dudes, Coke (Eric Burns) and Bud (Dave Maier). There's not much more to the plot, except for the secret behind the dog act – Rozetta's sidekick and his decision to switch species.

Drawing on the likes of A Boy and His Dog as well as the plays of Brecht, Beckett, and Shakespeare, Dog Act borrows shamelessly but blends skillfully as Adams refashions language and social ritual in her characters from the detritus of a collapsed civilization. Perhaps most impressively, she has her generous and loquacious believer, Rozetta, speaking a postapocalyptic patois (surprisingly natural-sounding with Donohue's finely pitched delivery) of mangled words, malapropisms, and once-fashionable phrases – all transmitted from a scattered past via a historic game of telephone. The play's language can be limiting in some cases. The scavengers, for instance, who sound like Elizabethan highwaymen crossed with late-20th-century slackers, keep up a continual streak of variations on the same expletive that soon turns amusing excess into something of a hindrance. Also, the dramatic allusions can feel like an exercise when they're handled too heavily (as when JoJo delivers, by rote, a rapid-fire story that's so clearly derivative of Lucky's nonsense speech in Waiting for Godot that any other intended effect is diminished).

Director Kent Nicholson and a strong cast, led by Donohue's and Bolster's ample and confident performances, execute the comedy but tread lightly over its darker tones, leaving the tension between characters underplayed. A stronger, more disorienting sense of danger, violence, and unpredictability seemed called for especially early on and might have added more amplitude to a story line that can become monotonous – though the smattering of simple, catchy songs (nicely arranged by Clive Worsley and accompanied on Stewart Port's cool and functional junkyard instruments) helps to relieve this.

Among the other details of the landscape, props follow a Road Warrior design principle. Linen and burlap appear as the staple doomsday fabrics we know them to be from countless TV and film treatments. And Port's makeshift instruments add their own peculiar charm, cobbled together from crutches, piping, and tin cans into functional, rough equivalents of a guitar, a cello, and a horn section. Beyond a lighting effect signaling violent and instantaneous changes in the seasons, the rest belongs to the imagination. But just as it's impossible to dream one's own death, we envision the end of the world as simply the old one back again – only now spied through a looking-glass distorted enough to fix our attention. From this vantage, it's finally Rozetta, gazing up at an indifferent sky, who hints at the self-knowledge that moves beyond the urge to dominate, or retreat. "This is a wicked old world," she agrees. "But she ours."

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