Woof, Daddy (FringeNYC)
And now the play begins. Sounds of water. Whoooooooooooooossssssssssssssssh.
There’s a girl who’s fallen into the deep water in Woof, Daddy, calling for help-it’s the oft-repeated, haunting flashback snippet. But she’s not the only character drowning in this story. Her surviving father and brother are struggling emotionally, left with the memory of that and there’s Mom who died of a disease. Both are played by Christa Mathis who gives a fully committed performance, effective as both the mother who knows she is dying (summoning strength to discuss how she will be remembered) and the girl who is having a conversation with-get ready-her pet dog who is able to speak in perfect English.
Yes, the "woof" is the title refers to bark of the dog who can now switch at will to human language and explain some things to the girl, including her own canine sexual preferences ("I’m hetero.") Sound weird? It is. But it’s also a play with some effective dramatic moments and odd bits of unexpected humor. Mercedes Manning is the dog and as canine and thespian, gets a good report card from obedience school, for graduating with the role to make it much more than a novelty touch of the bizarre. She’s interesting to watch and resists the cartoon potential. Director Amanda McRaven must also get credit for that approach, and has handled other challenging aspects of this play with deft skill, though the piece could use some rethinking in places. The moments of real connection and fear factors are the most successful.
As the father, Jason Vande Brake too rarely gets a break to show his real acting skills beyond posing and avoidance and shooting ducks. Rather than have a real conversation, the character spouts quotable quotes that are uber-poetic and philosophical, often to the point of laughable. He does so in a deep, serious voice and stoic stance, a constantly changing mantra always at hand like an endless pile of fortune cookie messages that would be rejected for being too obtuse. ("One man’s ocean is someone else’s puddle"; "To eat duck is to become duck.") This behavior begins the play, giving us an immediate sense of the absurd and the breakdown in communication and/or sanity. However, it is repeated at least twice as much as is necessary to establish that this is what the guy does. It becomes tedious, and we’re more curious to see what else the play is about and if we’ll ever move on from that and the constant quick-change back-and-forth bits between the two men and the two women who make up the cast.
Andrew Heringer plays the son and once things get going, turns in a very human, layered performance in a challenging role. He’s especially touching in a flashback scene where he is very young and talking with his mother about her impending death, saying how he wants her to be with him, mourning her already, and trying to understand what she means about how she will still be "with him" after death. His eyes and face show confusion, anxiety, and the attentive desire to comprehend the concept as he clings to her. His attempted confrontations with his father, his assertiveness, and his other struggles are well done without being made melodramatic.
Bryan Reynolds’ script is frustrating at times in his determination to be enigmatic and not flesh things out that are tantalizingly introduced as tidbits of potential. There’s a sense of economy (the play itself runs under an hour, even shorter than the 55 minutes promised in the official listings. Be aware of this and that it costs the same price, $15, as much longer Fringe shows. And several of those minutes are taken up with the shooting of ducks. So if you want more bang for your bucks and ducks, consider that.
But to be fair, there is a positive side to this: there is little extraneous material, unlike the trimmable fat that plagues many dramas and plenty of shows so far in this year’s Fringe shows. Short sentences are common and long monologues a foreign concept. Seeking a clue to the writer’s motives and point of view, program notes describe his Transversal Theater Company from California (which now and previously produced this and all involved hail from The University of California, Irvine.) Reynolds’ research and books also use the word Transversal. They notes say, in part, that the theater "pursues comprehension of the intricate workings of a given society’s or societies’ organizing machinery-and thus the consciousnesses that together comprise-in the interest of making individuals more aware of the ideational and material means by which their own subjectivity and the subjectivities (and social identities) of others have been formed, are maintained, and can change" and that it "encourages conceptual-emotional-physical movements and experiences outside of established parameters and therefore against personal and societal constraints. Such alternative thinking, feeling, and performance expand subjectivity and consciousness and create more cognizant individuals with enhanced self-empowerment" ... to which I respond by gulping and saying:
Ambitious is the goal, and some of it comes through. The beginning of the play has its frustrations and is distancing. High emotion and a truly shocking and intriguing ending comes along that seems worth the wait, but leaves its powerful aftermath and realities unexplored. Instead, the shock value and terror, plus a sudden ending, are left to resonate (they do) rather than continue the story to watch these people have to move on and deal with a final blow. I won’t be so thoughtless as to give away that ending as that would be unfair and might not be in the interest of making individuals more aware of the ideational and material means by which their own subjectivity and the subjectivities (and social identities) of others have been formed, are maintained, and can change.
To add oddity to its odds and ends, Woof, Daddy also has a bouncy song about the pleasures of Long Island worked into the story. It sounds like a remembered vacation jingle to promote tourism and is chipper and encourages a happy dance in the middle of this misery, a neat touch. It’s written by the playwright and Alan Terricciano. For the challenge-ready theater-goer, Woof, Daddy has some thought-provoking moments and chills up the spin to offer. Proceed
At the Linhart Theatre, 440 Lafayette St., 3rd floor. $15. PArt of the NY International Fringe Festival. Tix/info at www.fringefestivalNYC.org. Plays also 8/22 at 7 pm, 8/23 at 3 pm, 8/26 at 1:30 pm. More info at director’s website: www.amandamcraven.com