Friday, May 14, 2010

Heart Of A Dog At Moct

Hartwig and North Put Together A Provocative Comic Drama

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Bad Soviet Habits haunts Moct this month in the form of two performers. Identical T-shirts. Identical khakis. Identical Airwalk-esque sneakers—if there were more than two of them, Andy North and Kurt Hartwig would vaguely resemble some casual, middle-class cult. They’re actually dressed that way as a comfortable uniform for their performances of Heart Of A Dog—a class-conscious comic stage adaptation of the novel of the same name by Bulgakov. The two rapidly move in and out of four primary characters in a comic play that has real emotional heart to it. The play is stage genius at its best when it is reaching into the raw, emotional center of sci-fi allegory and childish stage hackwork at its worst when it is forcing it’s moral themes in broad, open monologue. Bad Soviet Habits’ Heart of a Dog rests somewhere between sci-fi B movie, fairy tale parable and truly engrossing drama. North and Hartwig take turns playing the four characters in question to varying degrees of success. Here’s a quick set of impressions of the four primary characters: 

The Doctor With Questionable Morals: A somewhat pompous character who seeks to increase human longevity by transplanting the pituitary gland and testicles of a human into a dog. (A premise that works best if you don’t try to think about it too much.) The comic arrogance of the character is best represented by North in those moments where he’s playing the character. Hartwig has a kind of straightforward brutality in the character that works better in serious moments.

The Doctor With A Conscience:  Assistant to the Doctor mentioned above, this doctor has his reservations about the experiment and feels less connected to it. His gentler nature keeps him at more of a distance from the dog than the above doctor. He wants to help, but can’t seem to impose his moral code on either the dog or the doctor in charge. It’s kind of an interesting dynamic. Hartwig and North both have their moments with the character, who seems to have slightly more depth than the rest of the characters. Probably the single most sympathetic character, it's easiest to relate to the rest of the play through him and his reactions to plot developments. 

The Dog Catcher: The class struggle end of the story is brought the stage largely through this character—a man who makes his living catching the dogs that other people have, presumably, been unable to take care of as a result of the current economic crisis. The moral ambiguity of his actions is rendered with some complexity, but he isn’t intrinsically a terribly interesting character. His best moment when he’s unwittingly driving a genetically modified dog he’s mistaken for a human being out to show him a kennel of a large number of stray dogs he’s going to be selling for vivisection. The similarities between Dog Catcher and anthropomorphized dog make for a clever bit of comedy that also feels subtly sophisticated.

The Dog: Okay, probably a bit of a disappointment here. As the dog is more of a cipher for human animalism, the portrayal of the dog ends up feeling a little flat by both Hartwig and North. There doesn’t seem to be as much of an effort as there could’ve been to bring the canine out in either actor portraying the dog at the beginning of the play. As the dog becomes human, Hartwig manages a remarkably textured performance, but without much of a canine portrayal to contrast it with, it feels a bit flat. The aggressiveness of the dog manifest in a human take on an interesting kind of complexity, though . . . prompting the head doctor to utter one of the funniest lines in the play . . . he’s wondering aloud if human organs transplanted into a cat could possibly make it, “more aloof.” There are quite a few clever comic asides here—little throw away one-liners that work quite well.

As a whole, Hartwig and North have a really good rapport that comes together quite well in the production . . . a rapport that can only improve as the two move the production to the Prague Fringe Festival in the very near future.

Bad Soviet Habits’ production of Heart of A Dog closes in Milwaukee next week with another free performance on Friday (the 21st) at 7pm at Moct.  

(Coincidentally, next Friday is near the end of National Dog Bite Prevention Week in the U.S . . .significant in that it has no rell connection with Heart of a Dog. . . one of the characters gets bitten . . . it's just kind of an oddcoincidence is all . . .)

 

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