By Joe Straw
Meet Mr. Rogers, an intellectually gifted scientist and a-not-so recent transplant from the farthest reaches of Halifax, England, who chooses to live his life in the confines of a tiny home in Nowhereville, USA, paid for by the generous subventions of his work, The Conservation Corporation.
For now, Mr. Rogers is blessed with an exceptional wife, Mrs. Rogers, and two neatly groomed well-behaved seven-year old kids. But upon closer inspection, the beautiful Mrs. Rogers’ eyes reveals little. Her gaze is an impenetrable door, sealed to keep back the horrific secrets of her past, which are lock away in her prefrontal cortex. Whether real or imagined, the sealed horrors reveal themselves in the illustrated pages of a child’s book.
Mr. Rogers’ idyllic life, as he knows it, is nearing its final inescapable conclusion and in the sanctity of his own home, a truth emerges that will destroys their lives in Mr. Rogers’ not-so-quiet, and not-so-friendly neighborhood.
I don’t remember certain details. It is a reason I take notes. And take a photograph of an empty set, so I can remember some of those details and then write about it. A photograph tells a thousand tales.
Some productions don’t provide pictures of the set but there is an audience out there that loves professional photos of the set and even some not so professional.
I’m not a bad person, and don’t mean to infringe on any “copyright material”. Frankly, I didn’t know an image of a darkened set is “copyright material”. Perhaps putting the set behind a curtain would solve the problem of pesky patrons like me, taking pictures of the set before the performance.
So, when I was told not to take photos because the set was “copyrighted material,” it sent me to a place where I do not want to go, deep, dark, far below the surface of my normal pleasant exterior.
People who want to control the image and therefore the message, irks me. I am not alone.
“You see what sendin’ out those negatives waves did Moriarty?” – Oddball (Donald Sutherland) – Kelly’s Heroes
“I am press.”
“I am press.”
Everyone else at the beautiful Hudson Theatre was nice: Why couldn’t that one extra person with the Stepford Wives eyes be nice as well?
And as I think about it, maybe this was a way of demonstrating the message of this production, of someone else putting me in my place, controlling the message, controlling the image. It doesn’t mean that I like it. I don’t. I will have my revenge, some day, not today, but one way. And, intentionally or not, I am now part of this glorious production that is D is for Dog. Thank you!
The Rogue Artists Ensemble presents D is for Dog written by Katie Polebaum and directed by Sean T. Cawelti is a marvelous production, with video effects, puppetry, and tricks that project out from a myriad of closets and doors. This production pays particular attention to the mechanical details of the show, the light cues, video cues, sound cues, and music cues. In its simplicity, it is one of the most jarring, eye-opening productions I’ve seen in a while and says a lot about what is going in Los Angeles theatres and in our nation today.
The play starts of in 1950’s commercial motif. Mrs. Rogers (Nina Silver) has her hand on the doorframe waiting to make her entrance. She projects herself onto the floor in a song and dance pleasantness of her life, doing all the things she needs to do to prepare her family for the day including pouring the perfect cup of Maxwell House coffee.
Her husband, Mr. Rogers (Guy Birtwhistle), takes the cup of coffee, drinks it, and with a twinkle in his eyes proclaims it the best.
Tomorrow is the birthday of the Rogers twins, Dick (Michael Scott Allen) and Jane (Jane!) (Taylor Coffman). The year is 1955, they will be seven years old, and they are excited as they munch on the perfect plate of Aunt Jemima pancakes, made by their perfect mother, with their perfect father, a scientist, going off to work at the Conservation Corporation.
Only they don’t eat. Not really.
“Science working for a better tomorrow.”
“Conservation Corp – a better future.”
And before Mr. Rogers goes off to the Conservation Corporation, they each take a white pill that will put “pep in their step.” But it does not really work for Jane (Jane!), something goes wrong with her wiring, and she needs another pill to control her moods.
The children go though the protocol of describing Lesson 143 the “Great War”. The lesson is indoctrination about how life used to be, a miserable existence of never ending wars culminating in the destruction of civilization from days gone bye.
But, now things are better. The sun always shines. The weather is always agreeable and life is oh so 1950’s nice.
But can things be that nice when they take off their clothes, open the closet door and get zapped for their morning protocol? Catching ultra-violet rays means they are not getting any sun or the vitamin “D” they need. Something is definitely wrong.
After their protocol, they get out their toys and play in the dining room until it is time for bed and their bedtime story from Mrs. Rogers. But the kids don’t like mom’s story. There is no truth to the words, she’s not really reading from the book, and puts their name in place of the characters in the book. It is totally boring – for the kids. They want their father stories that are real, with real things, and real animals. So exciting.
Dad knows. He knows the truth.
Coming home at night, Mr. Rogers hears the phone rings. He answers it to be told that “she” is getting worse. Rogers advises that she be given more “blue pills” and he will see her tomorrow.
The mystery of the “she” will be revealed later, or not.
Dick and Jane (Jane!) greet their father. They want a true bedtime story with real animals. Mr. Rogers takes the lamp from the table, takes off the shade, and projects real animals on the wall, and as he creates the shadow of a zebra, the zebras suddenly are projected on the wall and come to life in a fantastic video art display.
But, the kids want more. They want proof that animals are real.
Wanting the best for his kids, Mr. Rogers makes contact, through the use of an old fashion phone and an ipad, with other beings and makes a deal to secure a book on animals.
Of course, “They” want something in return, “They” always do.
The next day starts with the same routine except it’s the kids’ birthday and everyone promises this will be the best birthday yet.
But, then, things start to go horribly wrong. The phone rings and they are all terrified to answer it. Because Mrs. Rogers is afraid of the truth and this idea starts with a small crack and turns into large fissure.
And then “They” come. One cannot determine how “They” have found their way, how they’ve adapted, and what their purpose will be. We only know “They” are stronger than their weak friends who live where they live and “They” are horribly disfigured for living in a place that is not kind to their being.
D is for Dog has a marvelous cast and it may be a good idea to turn away here because I’m going to write about the cast without giving away too many details. If you are intrigued, go!
Guy Birtwhistle plays Mr. Rogers. This little dig in the first paragraph about being transplanted from England is a poke to Birtwhistle’s roots and his pronunciation of a few words. But it is a marvelous performance nevertheless. As the character Mr. Rogers, I believe wants the best for his kids and his wife. Or does he? They are the curse of his actions whether his actions were intentional remains to be seen. But why would the character risk everything to give his kids a glimmer of truth? Because they weren’t really his kids? Because they weren’t kids? Because he wanted to move on? Also, for the want of truth he has discovered something, a way to contact with those living above ground. It is something he needs, his children need, a truth; any truth will do, something tangible and not controlled. For some reason, he really didn’t seem so broken hearted in the end. Everything is gone, gone. And what has he to show for it? Nothing. One has to marvel at Birtwhistle’s performance, the subtle nuance that captures a moment that turns the relationships into chaos. It is marvelous performance. (http://guybirtwhistle.com)
Nina Silver grabs Mrs. Rogers by the throat and never gives an inch. As the character and in her motions, she is so robotic that one forgets there is a confused human being underneath her exterior. Caught in a nightmare of epic proportions, she seems unable to wake up to the cold reality and once she finally does she doesn’t know how to deal with it. Everything can’t be Donna Reed, there’s trash on the table and dirt on the floor and the happy homemaker mom doesn’t realize that it’s there nor does she have the compunction of pick it up. I believe more has to be made of the discovery of the book, because without this moment as her wake up call, we as an audience cannot grasp the complexities of her character and we need that moment. It’s a small thing to add to a wonderful performance.
Michael Scott Allen plays their seven-year-old son, Dick. (If he was seven years old.) Allen did a fine job of a small boy but did he really fight hard enough for the truth? And when he finds it and presents it to his mother, did he want something from her? And because he found the truth he got a little more than he bargained for. His performance is terrific. (michaelscottallen.com)
Taylor Coffman plays Jane (Jane!). Her performance is delightful and very professional as she hit a lot of the right notes. As the character, she is slowly coming out of her fog. She understands something is not right, not right with her, not right with the family. So she fights to get out of her predicament only to be seen as not being compliant and then she is force to take another pill so that she is compliant. Try as she might she can’t break free of the 1950’s and in the end she is dealt a sad blow. Poor Jane (Jane!). Coffman is marvelous! (taylorcoffman.com)
Matthew Patrick Davis plays The Voice and gave the play the sinister sound one likes to get from plays like this. This was a very nice job.
Heidi Hilliker plays the Visitor and the Dog. The visitor is the “They” referenced above. The visitor is the puppet you read about when you read about this play. Hilliker did a very fine job and created a nice relationship with her counterpart. Man and wife – always at odds.
Benjamin Messmer plays the other Visitor and the Corporation Employee. I thought it was a grand job that needed something extra. This Visitor needed a backstory. He needed to bring his recent past with him to the present. One of the fascinating things about the Visitor is that he has taken upon himself to live in pain, dehydrated to skeletal remains, to live in the elements of their own making. The tragic dirt of their environment influences his quality of life and he can take anything thrown at him except the pain. He wants something and must not stand by while the other person gets it for him, or not. He must quickly get it. He’s bringing something and He wants his reward. Messmer does a nice job that needs something extra but still nicely done.
Daniel Cohen is the alternate for Dick. Ryan Klamen is the alternate for Rogers and Visitor. Jennifer Maxcy is the alternate for Mrs. Rogers. And Melanie Portney is the alternate for the Visitor. They did not perform this night.
Katie Polebaum has written a terrific play that is perfect for the small venue at The Hudson Theatre. Polebaum is a fantast writing about the darker side of humanity. In this version of D is for Dog one can only see a glimmer of hope from her idealistic world. She leaves no room for an open door and compares this life as something we all may face in the future, unless we all wake the heck up. The play is wonderful in so many ways that it is not easily dismissed. One will contemplate it for weeks’ trying to figure out its complexities and that is always a good thing when venturing out into the world of theatre.
Sean T. Cawelti did a marvelous job as Director. There are a lot of very fine moments when things start to unravel. They are stunning moments which are subtle and amazing to watch. There are other moments that need fine-tuning, a deeper significance, and an exaggeration action to an exaggerated objective. Characters need not give up so easily to life and once they discover who they truly are should awaken to the cold realities.
This production team is second to none. There are a lot of people who have done a marvelous job in getting this show on the boards.
Estela Garcia - Movement Coach/Assistant Director
Eva Vieyra Osmand – Production Manager
Danielle Doucet – Stage Manager
Brenda Goldstein – Assistant Stage Manager
Adam Hunter - Technical Director
John Nobori – Sound Designer and Composer (A very fine job!)
Noelle Hoffman – Assistant Sound Designer
Katie Polebaum – Scenic Designer (Also a wonderful job.)
Ben Phelps – Composer (Amazing job!)
Haylee Freeman – Lighting Designer
Kerry Hennessy – Costume Designer (Perfect for the time, but does the “not 1950’s” underwear give things away?)
Tyler Stamets with Miles Taher Megan Wallace, Seat T. Cawelti, Kerry Hennessy, Kris Bicknell, Gwyneth Conaway-Bennison – Puppet Designer
Nate Hodges – Choreographer
Leslie Gray – Prop Designer (The details are astonishing!)
Keith Mitchell – Assistant Prop Designer
Nick Kunin – Video Animator (Also, a very nice job.)
Matthew G. Hill – Video Designer/Graphic Designer
Muhammad Saleh & Sean T. Cawelti – Assistant Video Designer
Carleigh Herbert Makeup Consultant
D is for Dog is everything theatre should be.
Run! And take a friend who has survived the “Occupy LA” internment camp.
Through August 4th, 2012
The beautiful Hudson Mainstage Theatre 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038