by Lynn on January 26, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto, Ont. until Feb. 12, 2023.

Adapted and directedby Marie Farsi

Based on the novel byAndré Alexis

Set, props and costumes by Julie Fox

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Music and sound by David Mesiha

Cast: Laura Condlln

Peter Fernandes

Stephen Jackman-Torkoff

Tom Rooney

Tyrone Savage

Mirabella Sundar Singh

Adaptor-director Marie Farsi and her gifted cast, create a classy, nuanced, compelling production of this award-winning novel.

The Story and Production. Two Greek gods, Apollo (Tyrone Savage) and Hermes (Mirabella Sundar Singh) go into a bar (The Wheat Sheaf Tavern in Toronto)….and while they are drinking their beer and waiting for their wings to arrive, they make a wager. One wagers the other…what would happen if dogs were given human traits, would they die happy? The winner of the wager gives the other a year of servitude (thus in a way indicating one trait of humans, to lord it over another, to make them work for you, not with you. But I digress).

Hermes and Apollo go to a vet’s office in downtown Toronto and open the cages and let about 15 dogs free. The dogs are given a conscience, language and the ability to reason. Three dogs don’t want to leave so they remain in their cages. The rest of the pack of dogs go to High Park.

From that point on the dogs reason, wrangle, and maneuver so that eventually one dog leads and the rest follow. In this case the dog named Atticus (a confident, almost imperious Tyrone Savage) becomes the leader.

He’s described in the programme this way: “Atticus: an imposing Neapolitan Mastiff with cascading jowls.” In fact, it’s interesting to note how the dogs are described: Benjy (Peter Fernandes), a resourceful and conniving Beagle. Lydia (Peter Fernandes): a Whippet and Weimaraner cross, tormented and nervous. Prince (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff): A mutt who composes poetry. Max (Laura Condlln): a mutt who detests poetry. And Majnoun (Tom Rooney): a black Poodle, briefly referred to as Lord Jim. While he’s not described this way in the programme, Majnoun also does not trust other dogs.

So the dogs are described with their likes, dislikes and other esoteric attitudes, just like humans. The dogs have their own language of which they are very protective. Jealousies are formed and signs of aggression appear. There are also questions of individuality and personal freedom.

In director Marie Farsi’s elegant production, the cast wear conventional clothes to convey the kind of dog they are. There are no fur coverings, although Benjy wears a tweed jacket and holds something in his mouth that could be either a twig or a piece of straw and I hope it’s a twig.

For Atticus and his imposing jowls Tyrone Savage, who plays him, wears pants, a t-shirt and a big, grey cowl around his neck, voilà, the jowls. Bravo to designer Julie Fox for this impish, clever solution in conveying what Atticus should look like. Indeed Julie Fox is masterful in her costuming so we see what all the dogs should ‘look’ like. Tyrone Savage’s Atticus sparingly gives a flick of his head, as a dog might do, just to make us always aware that we are watching dogs, but with human traits.

Majnoun played by Tom Rooney, is thoughtful, proud, intellectual and smart. Tom Rooney wears black pants, a black t-shirt, a black leather jacket and his arms hang down in front of him with his hands forming gentle fists to suggest paws. Tom Rooney’s poise conveys Majnoun’s stature, confidence and a watchfulness. Majnoun also learns English and how to speak it.

Tom Rooney is giving a wonderful, performance. It’s nuanced, has these little moments of quiet listening, but like a dog, not a human. He transforms; standing a bit forward, arms hanging down with slightly clenched fists suggesting paws.  Wonderful.

Two of his owners are a literary couple, Nira (a caring, sensitive Laura Condlln) and Miguel (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) who find him and take him in.  He so likes Nira that he indicates his secret to her—he can speak English. Laura Condlln as Nira is at first incredulous, but then accommodating at this wonder, and enters into that world of belief and trust. Nira and Majnoun have esoteric conversations about philosophy, life, relationships etc. He is protective of her. He doesn’t like Miguel.

One day the couple go away for a short weekend. But something seems to have happened and they don’t come back. Majnoun waits there patiently, determinedly, like a dog would do. He has this unconditional love for the humans—I think that is a dog thing.  Or perhaps it’s reciprocal.

The dogs have jealousies, which is human and there is aggression and death, which could be a human trait or a canine trait. I won’t split fur trying to decide. There are several deaths in the play—there would have to be for the wager to proceed. Some are moving.

André Alexis has written a dense, complex book about a provocative situation—how will dogs deal with having human traits—will that make them happy or unhappy, if they have the learning and dealing with the human traits to allow them to go one way or another. In his book there are existential ideas to consider. Marie Farsi has adapted the book into this play with efficiency and thought.

Her production is inventive, clever, she uses the space well—there are rocks, a fire hydrant and some dog props—again, kudos to Julie Fox for her design.

The cast is generally first rate. They would give a flip of the head, or a woof here or a bark and a kind of prancing walk like a dog, but not overtly, just the hint of that to keep us aware. Stephen Jackman-Torkoff is exuberantly flamboyant as Zeus, Prince and any dog he plays, with Miguel being a bit subdued. Peter Fernandes as Benjy might be playing a conniving Beagle, but he has disarming charm.  It’s interesting that death is considered differently by humans than the Greek gods do. With humans it’s painful, monumental and memorable. If it’s a human grieving for an animal it’s the same as a human grieving for another human. Do the gods even look at death that way? Would they appreciate it if a dog with human traits died happy? Do they know what happy is? Interesting question.

Marie Farsi is a smart director. She stages the action with graceful fluidity. She has a keen eye for the detail in the characters and the story. That said the production seemed long at 2 hours and 40 minutes. I can appreciate that you want to give each dog the personality they had in the book. But somehow the book seemed slim but packed with information, emotion, etc. And because each reader is individual the life of the story and the dogs seemed richer and more compact.

Still, Fifteen Dogs as a theatrical production is a worthy time in the theatre

Crow’s Theatre presents:

Plays until: Feb. 12 (and this is a holdover).

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (with one intermission).

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