Stage Door Review
Monday, January 23, 2023
written and directed by Marie Farsi
Crow’s Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto
January 19-February 12, 2023
Hermes: “Some humans are unhappy; others aren’t. Their intelligence is a difficult gift”
Crow’s Theatre has at last presented the long-delayed world premiere of Fifteen Dogs, Marie Farsi’s stage adaptation of the 2015 novel of the same name by André Alexis. In 2015 the novel won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. I have not read the novel so my review will concern only how the subject matter works as on stage, which, if you are going to the theatre, is all that counts. From that point of view the play seems overlong, its premise is flawed, the story shifts its focus halfway through and the action is filled with extraneous incidents. On the other hand, the piece is a gift to actors, all of whom play multiple roles. It would be a fine example of ensemble acting if only Marie Farsi, as director, could forge all six actors into an ensemble.
The Guloien Theatre at Streetcar Crowsnest has been configured as a theatre in the round as it has been for its last two shows. The six actors arrive and begin setting up the story through a type of choral narration where the lines are distributed among the individual speakers. Throughout the rest of the play each of the actors passes the role of narrator from one to the other.
The story finds the Greek gods Hermes and Apollo at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern in present-day Toronto. What precipitates the action is a ludicrous wager. Apollo bets that animals would be more unhappy if they had human intelligence than humans are. Hermes accepts the bet “on condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win”. The gods happen to pass a veterinary clinic holding fifteen dogs and decide to use them for their experiment.
One might be inclined to excuse this premise because Alexis subtitles his novel “An Apologue”. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica an apologue is “a short fable or allegorical story, meant to serve as a pleasant vehicle for some moral doctrine or to convey some useful lesson … an apologue, with its introduction of animals and plants, to which it lends our ideas and language and emotions, is necessarily devoid of real truth, and even of all probability”.
The gods’ experiment is literally to endow animals with human ideas and language and is not merely devoid of probability but makes no sense. If, as Hermes says, “Some humans are unhappy; others aren’t”, what is the point of finding out what human intelligence will do when transplanted into an alien species? If human intelligence doesn’t work for humans, why should it work for dogs? Why if “at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy” should Hermes win the bet? Who says anyone is supposed to be happy at the end of life.
Further undermining the notion that the story is any kind of serious experiment is the fact that the Hermes, Apollo and even their father Zeus all interfere with the dogs’ knowledge in the course of the action. This periodic tampering thus renders the supposed purpose of the gods’ experiment void.
As it turns out the story’s absurd premise is nothing but an excuse for the play nominally to explore the effect of human consciousness on dogs. But even that is not true. The play gives only three instances of human consciousness. Atticus, a hunter, suddenly wonders for the first time whether his prey feel pain, an unlikely thought even for human carnivores. Another dog suddenly wonders how high the sky is – again an idea that would occur to few humans. Later Atticus, the most brutal of the dogs, uncharacteristically turns Platonic philosopher and wonders what the ideal dog would be like and even begins to worship this ideal.
Rather, the play’s concern is not with consciousness but quickly shifts to language. It goes into great detail how the dogs invent their own language and how one of them, Prince, even begins to compose poetry. Realizing that ordinary dogs no longer regard the god-gifted dogs as dogs, Atticus insists that the gifted band suppress their new thoughts and their new language. This causes a rift that pits Atticus’ reactionary faction against those like Majnoun who feel the troop should accept their new condition. The rift leads to violence. Some dogs are killed, some like Majnoun nearly killed.
Despite its title, Fifteen Dogs focusses on only four of the canines – Majnoun, Atticus, Benjy, and Prince. Three of the fifteenth die right at the beginning when they decide not to escape the clinic with the others and are soon euthanized. If Farsi were more concerned with creating a vital drama than with faithfulness to her source, she should more radically adapt her source and call the play Four Dogs, since, indeed, as far as the play is concerned the other eleven dogs have no dramatic function.
Of these four principal dogs, the play focusses primary only one, Majnoun, and his relationship with his mistress Nira. The two become so close that Majnoun, now called Jim, learns English and the two converse on all manner of topics, particularly on the nature of love. The Majnoun-Nira story could easily stand on its own were Farsi permitted to cut the source down even more drastically. In comparison with this the tales of Atticus, Benjy, and Prince are far less involving.
Of the six actors, five work as an ensemble and concentrate on our appreciating the play as a story rather than a vehicle for self-expression. The notable exception is Stephen Jackman-Torkoff (they/them). Only when they play Miguel, Nira’s husband, do they focus on playing a role in the play. Otherwise, as Prince the dog and Zeus the god their acting becomes egregiously self-indulgent. Semi-sung line delivery, wild gestures, funny walks all display a look-at-me style of acting does everything to set Jackman-Torkoff apart from the other five in a way that is frankly insulting to the teamwork that the others try to establish. In simply practical terms, Jackman-Torkoff is unable to distinguish their over-the-top god Zeus from their over-the-top dog Prince.
Fortunately, the other five form a tight bond and concentrate on playing and differentiating their many characters. The actor best at playing a dog endowed with human consciousness is Tom Rooney. He seems the most fully aware that dogs lack the ability to make the infinite variety of facial expressions that humans can nor the same variety of gestures Therefore, Rooney acts primarily through head gestures and tone of voice. Such restrictions sublimely create the image of an expanded mind trapped in a more confined body. The play has Majnoun turn into another Hachikō (1923-35), the dog famed in Japan for its loyalty, who waited at Shibuya station for more than nine years until his death for his deceased master to return home from work. Rooney makes Majnoun’s long wait for Nira’s return the most poignant section of the play and only section that gives it any heart.
Laura Condlln is excellent at playing her various canine characters but her main character is Nira. Condlln takes us on Nira’s long journey from first believing that Majnoun, the dog she rescued, is possessed, to her reaching an ever deeper understanding and appreciation of him of a fellow creature. Condlln keeps her insightful characterization beautifully balanced on a fine line between the amusing and the sensitive.
Peter Fernandes plays five roles. Two stand out. One is Athena, a teacup poodle, who is so used to being carried and pampered that she is not well equipped to survive in the outside world. Fernandes makes her a figure both comic and sad. The other role is that of Benjy, a deceitful beagle who befriends Majnoun. Fendandes’ funniest sequence occurs when Miguel teaches Benjy the first page of Nira’s favourite novel Vanity Fair. Fernandes impression of how a dog would pronounce those elegant lines hits the mark so well the scene is absolutely hilarious.
Tyrone Savage is well cast as both the god Apollo and the Neapolitan mastiff Atticus. Savage brings out strength tempered with a certain recklessness in both. The play depicts Apollo not as the model of reason and self-discipline that the adjective “apollonian” (as opposed to dionysian”) has come to mean and Savage gives us this less supremely rational version of the god. As Atticus, Savage portrays the clearest struggle within any of the dogs between their former nature and the alien nature imposed upon them. The fact that Atticus alone begins to worship the ideal Dog points to a link between religion and absolutism which is one of the play’s main insights.
Mirabella Sundar Singh makes a vivid impression in her brief appearance as the plucky little Schnauzer Dougie, but her main role is that of the god Hermes. Singh seems to know that Hermes is the trickster god in Greek mythology and gives her voice a twinkle as if Hermes knows Apollo is doomed to lose their wager. Singh is especially good at showing how Hermes takes on different qualities when he changes his form. As the mysterious black dog that appears to Majnoun, Singh gives her voice a compelling, oracular nature that demands obedience.
The telling of this overly complex story is helped immensely by the use of Julie Fox’s models of the fifteen dogs mentioned in the text. When one dies it is taken out of sight.
If an apologue is meant to serve as a pleasant vehicle for some moral doctrine or to convey some useful lesson”, as per the encyclopedia definition above, it is difficult to see what doctrine or lesson the play is conveying. The fact that only one of the fifteen dogs dies happy, hardly a valid test of the worth of human consciousness, proves nothing.
There has been a recent adaptation of human life as seen from a canine point of view which has been successful. That is Tim Carroll’s adaption of Virginia Woolf’s comic novel Flush (1933) presented at the Shaw Festival in 2021. The show for narrators and puppets depicts the romance between the poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett as seen by Barrett’s cocker spaniel Flush. With its innocent point of view, Flush is a very funny satire of the strange ways of human manners and interactions. Fifteen Dogs would seem to be attempting a similar thing only with much more pretence and very little purpose.
The main joy of Fifteen Dogs is to experience the actors glorying in the chance to play such a wide range of characters. Playing dogs seemingly frees up elemental aspects of the actors’ talent that classical roles as human beings does not permit. The show may wear out its welcome by the end of Act 1, but the charm and versatility of at least five of the actors stays with you.
Photos: Mirabella Sundar Singh as Hermes with models of the 15 dogs; Tyrone Savage as Apollo,with Tom Rooney, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Peter Fernandes and Laura Condlln crouching and Mirabella Sundar Singh as Hermes; Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Zeus; Tom Rooney as Majnoun and Laura Condlln as Nira. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.
For tickets visit www.crowstheatre.com.