Crow’s Theatre/Fifteen Dogs, adapted and directed by Marie Farsi, based on the novel by André Alexis, Guloien Theatre, Streetcar Crowsnest, Jan. 10 to Feb. 12. Tickets available here.
Having been frolicking in the Aruban sun for a month, I’ve come late to the party for Fifteen Dogs. Nonetheless, I belatedly want to join the chorus of praise for, yet again, another outstanding theatre experience at Crow’s Theatre.
Director/adaptor Marie Farsi has managed the impossible in bringing this Canadian literary masterpiece to the stage. The much-honoured 2015 novel by André Alexis is an apologue, meaning, a moral fable about the human condition featuring animals as characters, so we are dealing with a storyline that is deep in symbolism.
Apollo and Hermes, over drinks at Toronto’s Wheatsheaf Tavern, make a wager over whether dogs can die in a state of happiness if endowed with human intelligence and language. The god who loses owes the other a year of servitude. The story then follows the fate of 15 dogs who just happened to all be at a local veterinary clinic when the gods endow them with these gifts.
To tell this story involves a great deal of narration, but Farsi has cleverly interpolated scenes from the lives of the dogs to break up the storytelling. As a result, the play is long because there is a lot to cover, but all of it is riveting. Like the book, the narration is a tour of Toronto, from west to east to south, from Parkdale, to Leslieville, to the Beach — and of course, High Park — and all the actors, at various points, take on the role of narrator with energy and gusto.
As this play has already been reviewed to saturation, so to speak, I’d like to focus on the theatrical values that Farsi and her outstanding creative and acting team have developed specifically for Fifteen Dogs. Needless to say, everything works.
First of all, there is Julie Fox’s evocative set, props and costumes. Fifteen Dogs is theatre in the round, so the audience is close at hand to the action. The set is replete with a hydrant, telephone poles and grass — in other words, all the things that are important in a dog’s world. There is also a circle of scattered rocks evoking a small Stonehenge, which is an interesting concept to say the least. The main set piece is a gurney, as it were, arrayed with 15 miniatures of the dogs in question. As each dog meets its fate, the little statue is carried off the stage. It is an image that is quite poignant.
Fox’s costumes are character driven. For the ruthless and sexy Rosie, for example, the actor wears tight-fitting black pants and top, and high black boots. Conniving Benjy sports a cocky fedora and loud checks. Gilding the lily are Kimberly Purtell’s pin-spot lighting and David Mesiha’s subtle music and sound design. These last two elements are designed to enhance, but never overpower.
What Farsi and her actors have come up with in terms of performance is astonishing.
First, there is the overt physicality of dog. For example, before a dog settles, he/she stamps down the softness of the bed or sofa or chair, moving in a circle. Dog owners in the audience got a laugh out of this one. Throughout the show, every once in a while, the actors do movements that do remind us they are dogs, like shaking their bodies from side to side, but it is never overkill, only just surprising.
Even more impressive is the vocalise. There are woofs, growls and other dog sounds, but they are all different, depending on the dog, and, more to the point, they are full-throated outpourings that are performed with conviction and authority. There is nothing laughable here. When the actors move into their newly acquired dog language, there is a hint of, for lack of a better word, foreign-ness and strangeness. For example, the actors layer in a crusty guttural tone to distinguish its uniqueness from human speech.
How long was spent on developing the physical and vocal aspects of Fifteen Dogs can only be imagined, but the result is breathtaking in its conceit in terms of what it presents to the audience.
Then there is the line delivery. It is almost as if every spoken word was carefully crafted, like choreographed speech. Nothing said is unimportant, regardless whether it is dog or human talk. You can literally see the care and nurture of the divisions of language, and how the actors speak as dogs, humans or narrators are all very different aural experiences for the audience.
In other words, when you tunnel down into the performance, or unpack it, or peel away the layers of the onion, or put forth whatever metaphor you want to use, the takeaway is a magnificent directorial accomplishment on the part of Farsi, who is relatively new to the scene.
The first work I ever saw helmed by Farsi was Ghost Quartet, also at Crow’s, in 2021, and I knew then that I was seeing the makings of a great director who understands that the devil is in the details. With Fifteen Dogs, she confirms my belief in her brilliance as a true original — a theatre craftsperson who creates her own conventions and rules.
Six actors play the wealth of characters that populate Fifteen Dogs, both animal and human, and there is not a weak link in the cast. Each actor cunningly brings his or her own personality to the mix as well, which makes for a more penetrating and deeper study. It’s brilliant casting all round.
For the sake of brevity, I will describe my favourite character for each actor.
Here I go again about Tom Rooney being one of Canada’s greatest actors, but this guy can do no wrong. For Rooney, I have to choose Majnoun, the dog who learns to speak human English, and develops a true bond of friendship and love with a human. Rooney portrays the least number of characters because Majnoun is such a main focus. Watching his arc from dog/dog, to intelligent dog, to human/dog is as fascinating as it is subtly rendered. He touches the heart.
Stephen Jackman-Torkoff’s portrayal of the poet Prince is absolutely a wonder. From the physicality and speech, to the dog’s sheer joy of language, the actor imbues his character with a totality of performance that we rarely get to witness. Every fibre of his being is alive on stage.
For Laura Condlln, I choose the human Nira. This role isn’t easy, portraying a believable deep conversational bond with a dog, but Condlln makes it work. Her serious discussions with Majnoun we accept as absolute truth, and because the actor radiates such warmth and sincerity, we are seductively drawn into her friendship and love with the dog. It is an important centrepiece of the plot.
The sparkling Peter Fernandes as the tricky and cunning Benjy is an absolute delight. His raucous energy and fierce survival mode dominate the stage, and his word and dog-speak delivery is masterful. It is a charming performance in every sense of the word — dorky, nerdy and smart as hell.
I remember Tyrone Savage as a kid actor, and here he is as Atticus, the leader of the pack. What struck me particularly about this performance is the strength the actor radiates without ever raising his voice or shouting, which is no mean feat. The intensity is everything here. Atticus doesn’t want the new ways, and is ruthless in his quest for dog purity. Even more, is that Savage manages to avoid the trap of being a predictable villain. It is a very strong performance.
Finally, there is Mirabella Sundar Singh, and for her I choose Hermes. She has to play opposite Savage’s golden boy Apollo, but she holds her own and then some. Subtle yet cunning, determined but pleasant, knowing but diffident, she wins the day.
Let us not forget that Fifteen Dogs is a fable, so the book is really about the human condition, and Farsi’s production never lets us forget that — the suffering and the cruelty, offset by the kindness and loyalty. The whole philosophical sweep of love, death and life is there in this adaptation for the stage.
I worry when a book that I love is made into a play or a movie, or, heaven forbid, a musical, but there is nothing to fear here. This production of Fifteen Dogs does André Alexis proud.
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