Stage Door Review 2022

Heart of a Dog

Tuesday, February 1, 2022


written and directed by Mohammad Yaghoubi, translated by Mahsa Ershadifar & Mohammad Yaghoubi

Nowadays Theatre Company, Next Stage Theatre Festival, Toronto

January 31-February 13, 2022 online

Zina: “No human can interfere with the work of God”

When live theatre performances were paused in Ontario on January 3 this year, the Next Stage Theatre Festival had planned to offer five of its ten shows in a digital format and five in person on stage. The provincial announcement meant that the non-digital shows had to cancel or to be filmed for digital presentation. Of the latter, one is Heart of a Dog, a play written and directed by Mohammad Yaghoubi.

The play is an adaptation of the novella written in 1925 by Mikhail Bulgakov, widely viewed as a satire of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yaghoubi first presented the play in Farsi in Iran in 1999. He revived the production in 2014 in Iran, but his notion that all characters, male and female, should wear headscarves to twit the government’s rules on public apparel, caused the show to be shut down. Now that Yaghoubi is in Canada he is presenting his adaptation as he had wished.

Bulgakov’s story concerns the renowned Professor Philip Philipovich Preobrazhensky and his assistant Dr. Bormental. In the novella they are Old Guard anti-revolutionaries who perform transplants of sheep ovaries into other aging anti-revolutionaries who wish to regain their youthful appearance. (This is based on an actual practice of the time.) In the play Yaghoubi omits this detail and simply presents the two as ordinary doctors whose practice includes a number of high government officials.

In the novella the Professor comes across a stray dog Sharik and has the idea of performing a transplant of a human pituitary gland into the dog in order “to explore the acceptability of hypophysis transplant and its potential for the rejuvenation of the human organism”, as Bormental notes in his journal (in Avril Pyman’s translation). As the transplant takes effect the Professor and Bormental look on in horror at the stray dog’s transformation. The humour is that instead of a Frankenstein’s monster, Sharik gradually turns into an ordinary member of the proletariat with revolutionary tendencies.

In adapting Bulgakov’s story, Yaghoubi misses two key points. The first is that Bulgakov’s satire cuts both ways. On the one hand, it makes fun of the proletariat for being little more than stray dogs. On the other hand, is also makes fun of the old guard like the Professor (Neta J. Rose) and Bormental (Siavash Shabanpour), who waste their talent on rejuvenating other old guard members. Yaghoubi completely eliminates any mention of the second point and he seriously misconstrues the first point.

In Yaghoubi’s play the Professor says outright to Zina (Melanie Grace), his maid concerning Sharik (Aida Keykhaii), “We want to turn him into a human”, which is clearly not the Professor’s intention in the novella. By having the Professor state such an intention, Yaghoubi makes nonsense of the majority of the play that follows. Yaghoubi shows the Professor, Bormental and Zina constantly yelling at Sharik for not acting like a civilized human being, when, in fact, Sharik will never be a civilized human being from their upper class point of view even when the transformation is complete. Rather than amusing this constant berating of Sharik quickly becomes tedious.

Then, when Sharik has done ordinary human things like wanting a human-style name, getting a job, inviting a drunken friend (Yury Ruzhyev) over and getting married (Aylin Oyan Salahshour as the wife), the Professor and Bormental still criticize his actions.

What we miss entirely is the mystification that the Professor and Bormental experience when their experiment has such unexpected results. Bulgakov has Bormental note in his journal, “Philip Philipovich, like a true scholar, admitted his mistake: the transplant of the hypophysis gives not rejuvenation but total humanization (underlined three times). This in no way detracts from the amazing, staggering nature of his discovery”. The other source of humour, of course, is that the transformation may be “amazing” but it leads to creating a political animal they both abhor.

Yaghoubi has made other alterations that have more to do with his censored production in Iran than with the current staging of plays in Toronto. He casts a non-binary actor as the Professor, but, more controversially for Iran though not Toronto, he casts a woman as Sharik, something he states the Iranian authorities would never allow. He has the entire cast wear headscarves, but here such garb on men is just unusual rather than, in Iran, a comment on an oppressive regime.

The production features two outstanding performances. Aida Keykhaii is extraordinary as Sharik, acting basically as if she were possessed by the spirit of a dog. It’s a no-holds-barred performance that seems as if it might veer out of control, but, in fact, Keykhaii carefully details Sharik’s step-by-step transformation from dog to human, while revealing Sharik’s painful internal battle between her imposed humanity and essential caninity at every stage. The play is worth seeing just to see an actor so fully embody so fantastic a role.

The other standout performance is that of  Neta J. Rose as the Professor. Rose appears to have the clearest grasp of how the comedy should be played. Even when angered by Sharik, Rose’s Professor never loses their sense of superiority and control. An adaptation featuring simply the contrast between Keykhaii’s wildly raging Sharik and Rose’s superficially imperturbable Professor would be enough to encapsulate the entire story. The other actors are all adequate but to have cabaret artist Yury Ruzhyev the such a small role is luxury casting.

The play is quite decently filmed as plays on film go. It alternates closeup shots with shots taking in the entire playing area so that we at least know where characters are supposed to be in relation to each other at all times. There is glare especially off the white lab coats and Ali Ghorbanian as Fyodor either does not have a mic like the others or his mic is off throughout his one scene.

The main difficulty as usual with comedy filmed in an empty theatre is that the actors have no audience reactions to play off. Keykhaii’s all-out embracing of canine behaviour would surely elicit laughter but the others’ treatment of Sharik would not. Indeed, one feels the overall impact of the play would be one of grim irony rather than overt laughter.

This is the second adaptation of Bulgakov’s novella that Toronto has seen. In 2003 Pleiades Theatre produced Anne Nenarokoff’s adaptation which made the grave error of focussing to much on the Professor and Bormental and not enough on Sharik. Yaghoubi’s adaptation is far superior to that, but he sabotages the play’s humour by making Sharik’s human transformation the Professor’s intention. The novella has been adapted numerous times, most notably as a solo show by Robert Astle in 1990 and a multi-actor show by Éadaoin O’Donoghue in 2021.  We will simply hope that eventually one truer to Bulgakov’s intentions comes to Toronto.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Neta J. Rose as the Professor, Siavash Shabanpour as Bormental, Aida Keykhaii as Sharik and Melanie Grace as Zina; Neta J. Rose as the Professor; Aida Keykhaii as Sharik. © 2022 Nowadays Theatre Company.

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