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SF Chronicle, September 25, 2004


It's Man Eat Dog-Man in a Wild World

-- Robert Hurwitt


Culture is a mutable, imperiled and hilariously vigorous thing in the postapocalyptic world of Liz Duffy Adams' "Dog Act." Stories have become as fractured and subject to creative recombinations as the no-longer-united states of the nation. What remains of the shreds of a shared cultural heritage is in the keeping of traveling ragtag troupes of vaudevillians, allowing them a very tentative safe passage through lands controlled by warring savage tribes.
So the play is very much the thing in Adams' delightful dark comedy. Which makes it a wonderfully appropriate piece to celebrate the Shotgun Players' new life at Ashby Stage. True, the long-homeless Shotgun signed its 30-year lease on its new space -- the former Transparent Theater -- last spring, and has rented it to other groups in the interim. But Thursday's opening of "Dog" was the group's auspicious debut in what Artistic Director Patrick Dooley noted was its "44th performance space in 12 years," a place that should be its primary home for a good long time.

It was a second opening for the world premiere of "Dog." Staged in collaboration with the Playwrights Foundation (which had workshopped the script two years ago in its annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival), Shotgun's "Dog" opened on Labor Day and ran for two more weeks at Thick House on Potrero Hill before crossing the bay to Berkeley.

It's a bright dystopian blend of pop and high culture -- Brecht's Mother Courage as a vaudeville troupe leader wandering a "Waiting for Godot" world as transmuted through generations of "Mad Max"-"Road Warrior" movies with some lingering influences from "Peter Pan" -- peppered with astonishing and exhilarating eruptions of storytelling and wondrous plays within the play. And it's been staged with sympathetic verve and sly inventiveness by director Kent Nicholson.

Rozetta Stone (Beth Donohue) is the principal vaudevillian, the last survivor of a once-large troupe, wandering a barren landscape inhabited by warring tribes and ruthless Scavengers. Her primary assets, besides her stock of theatrical lore, are her remarkably versatile large red wagon -- the principal feature of Praba Pilar's set, a cart covered with metal plates, toys and other artifacts, with a side that folds out into a full stage -- and her companion, Dog (Richard Bolster).

Dog is a man who has assumed dogdom as his lot. Which is a good deal for Rozetta because she can feature a "dog act," a highly prized commodity in a world pretty much devoid of animals -- except the occasional "squish" they manage to catch for food (a squish is a fish with the tail of a squirrel). It's also good for Dog, a man of mysterious origins. The ferociously ravenous Scavengers -- who "recycle" people as hungrily as anything else they find --

have been prohibited from preying on vaudevillians by their godlike leader, "the Wendy."

Adams sets the scene with a pair of Scavengers in wry lampoons of cobbled- together "Road Warrior" garb -- the imposing Eric Burns as the alpha-male Coke and tempestuous Dave Maier as his snarling underling, Bud -- spouting a vivid blend of Elizabethan English and inventive variations on a common four- letter word. (Valera Coble's ingenious costumes mirror Adams' creatively patched together language.)

Donohue's radiant Rozetta takes over, lacing show-must-go-on optimism with seen-too-much sorrow. She encourages the wary Dog with lyrical descriptions of the sea and their eventual goal, the fabled kingdom of China, in a delightful hodgepodge of pidgin English, flights of fractured poetry, newly minted words and borrowings from everybody from Shakespeare to Beckett.

Adams raises the stakes with the introduction of a skewed mirror-image pair of vaudevillians (or maybe not), troupe leader Vera Similitude (a tweedy, wily C. Dianne Manning, spouting erudite confabulations that make Rozetta's sound almost commonplace) and her mysterious sidekick, JoJo the Bald-Faced Liar (the magnetic Rami Margron). Vera has lost her troupe, her stage-wagon and everything else to "friendly fire" in a battle between renegade Texas remnants and the Pan-Amerindian Casino Nation. She has a valuable property in JoJo, though. Margon's astounding, vehement motormouth eruptions of remarkably reconstituted American Indian coyote tales are among the highlights of the evening.

What follows is a story of treachery, greed and intrigue on and around Rozetta's traveling stage. Adams could develop the plot and its ramifications in a bit more detail, which would heighten the dramatic tension, and better integrate her background postapocalyptic world (making more use of the comically abrupt changes of season, for example). There were moments Thursday when some of the acting, especially the diction, could have been sharper.

But Adams' vaudeville routines are each a stroke of genius. The songs are engaging, with their found-percussion and crutch-banjo accompaniment (amazing instruments by Stewart Port and deft musical direction by Clive Worsley) -- and Adams' new "Sing yo, sweet Harriet" lyrics for the old spiritual are inspired. The monologues by each of the performers are near classics of their kind.

Best of all is "The Mortality Play," the pride of Rozetta's repertory -- a blissfully eclectic history of humanity hilariously combining Darwin, the Bible, Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First" routine, Shakespeare, the Three Stooges, Jackie Gleason, cabaret and much more. True, Adams could fill out the script more, but her "Dog," as they say, has legs.

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