Fifteen Dogs at Crow’s Theatre

I loved the book (André Alexis’s 2015 novel Fifteen Dogs).

I love the play (adapted for the stage and directed by Marie Farsi at Crow’s Theatre).

The book hit me in totally different places than the play. When you read something to yourself it may not evoke laughter the way watching a human actor portray a dog will do. In Guloien Theatre today I was fascinated by the many times people giggled and laughed at things that I saw in more ambivalent terms.

When Benjy the beagle tells Majnoun about his ability to get a response from people by rolling over in the book, it’s a dark admission, that the dog can manipulate a human. But when Benjy (played by Peter Fernandes) demonstrates this to Majnoun (played by Tom Rooney) and all of us in the theatre, it’s hysterically funny. There’s a tonal shift as the prevailing tone of the show is lightened by the enormous amount of laughter. When you’re watching people impersonate dogs the laughs are guaranteed, and perhaps the first casualty is some of the seriousness that I might have craved.

It’s not that Farsi has done anything wrong, so much as the misanthropic sensation I have about my fellow humans, who seem to laugh at things that aren’t funny, that are profound or disturbing. I like to think I’m an extrovert but a moment like this makes me wonder, do I really prefer books to plays? Even though Rooney, Fernandes et al play with a resolute deadpan refusal to tip off any gags, the audience howls with laughter throughout. Even at moments that are dark & troubling there are laughs, although maybe some of those are of the nervous variety.

Let me repeat, I love this adaptation, amazed that the whole story seems to be there without omissions, that the subtleties are captured.

Apollo (Tyrone Savage) faces off against Hermes (Mirabella Sundar Singh), while the other four cast members are also visible (photo: Dahlia Katz)

I can’t recall the last time I saw a show where every single player seemed essential, an indispensable part of the whole but that’s what Farsi and her team have created. I’d go so far as to suggest that the book and/or the play is a bit like a Rorschach inkblot test, where your favorite character or your favorite story-line might be a reflection of your issues. So in other words, the players I emphasize likely reflect my own sensibility.

My favorite parts of the show were the poems from Prince, the dog whose poetic gift earns him exile from the pack. While I found these fascinating to read in the book, they take over the play in the most eloquent creations from the team of actor Stephen Jackman-Turkoff (portraying Prince) and the music and sound design from David Mesiha. When I read the book I wondered if music might come into play for these moments and was thrilled with the flamboyant result. Jackman-Turkoff is sometimes giving us something resembling rap, sometimes dancing and never dull. We see a totally different approach when he’s playing Zeus or Miguel.

I found it hard to take my eyes off Fernandes in his various roles. While I was a bit uncomfortable with the book-version of Benjy, the one whose cleverness leads several dogs to their deaths and whose cynical canine dramatics I mentioned above. Is my own beagle also faking me out, I wonder? Say it isn’t so. But there I was laughing at Fernandes showing up the gullability of humanity, and impossible to ignore in every one of his canine creations.

Rooney’s Majnoun represents one of the most important dogs in the story, the character with whom I identified for most of the book when I read it. I found Rooney’s underplaying set up some of the best laughs, as when he goes to join Nira on the couch and promptly walks in circles on the couch precisely the way a dog would. Yet he’s always dignified, straight-forward and compelling precisely because he seems so human: as a dog.

Nira is one of several characters from Laura Condlln, who showed a great range in playing eight different parts, human, canine & immortal. By turns cute, scary, seductive, or lovable, she is one of the anchors of the production.

Tyrone Savage is a more likeable Atticus than I would have expected from the book, injecting a kind of sympathetic charisma into his portrayal of one of the scariest dogs in the story. And he’s a funny Apollo.

Mirabella Sundar Singh did as much heavy lifting as Condlln in seven diverse roles including an irresistibly mischievous Hermes, who also takes on additional canine incarnations in dreams.

Farsi’s adaptation seems to have it both ways. On the one hand, yes this is a popular subject. Yet there are classical overtones what with the appearance of gods we might see in classical tragedy (even if Apollo and Hermes are not consuming ambrosia but simply having a beer at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern in Toronto). So it felt perfectly natural today at Crow’s Theatre when Marie Farsi began her adaptation for the stage with a kind of choral prologue for all six of the players that wouldn’t be out of place in Sophocles or Aeschylus.

From there it’s not a huge leap to watch the fifteen dogs in a west-end veterinary clinic having their lives altered by divine intervention, portrayed by those same actors. Pet owners regularly wonder what their pets are thinking, whether they’re happy, and voila, the story where the gods grant 15 dogs human consciousness as an experiment in happiness.

I did a double take when I noticed the book is from 2015, when it seems to anticipate MAGA and the political developments in the USA.

Fifteen Dogs has been held over at Crow’s Theatre due to popular demand. I can’t recommend it highly enough, but hurry. The tickets will soon be gone.

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