The funniest part of this fitfully amusing 1920’s Russian comedy is its premise: a scientist transplants some human organs into the body of a dog, and the dog thereafter becomes an important Party apparatchik. But this is no Soviet Being There; Sharikov (f/k/a Sharik the Dog, played by James Gagne) rises to no position higher than Chief Catcher of Stray Cats. Bulgakov’s point (and thank God for program notes!) appears to be that contrary to accepted Marxist thought, there is no changing the basic nature of a living creature. A dog will always be a dog, and acquisitive man will always be acquisitive man.
Well. Bulgakov would have been a little clearer if Dr. Preobrajensky (Carter Jahncke), the scientist who decided to give a man’s testicles and pituitary gland to a homeless mongrel, had intended to change the dog’s nature in the first place. Instead, the Doctor – who is not a wild-eyed Bolshie but a relentless capitalist with aristocratic tastes – seems to have assigned no purpose whatsoever to the bizarre experiment. What’s more, the dog’s nature is changed, and to the Doctor’s sorrow – from a “sly but affectionate” canine to the whining, sullen, ill-mannered man he becomes. Whatever the wisdom is that Bulgakov sought to impart, it is not evident from the slow-moving text (the operation does not take place until the end of the first Act).
Notwithstanding the fuzzy, self-defeating quality of the play itself, this production offers us considerable pleasure. Jahncke is remarkably smooth and convincing as the self-indulgent surgeon, reaching transports of near-religious rapture when he talks about fine wine, English whisky or a certain aria from Aida. The play’s most focused political satire comes about when the Doctor, who specializes in “rejuvenation” surgery which generates effects now available in pill form, effortlessly undoes the attempts of three housing regulators (D. Grant Cloyd, Karen Novak and Joshua Singer) to cut down on his immense living space by calling one of his patients, a high-ranking official, on the phone. Jahncke is marvelous in this scene, and the actors playing the three regulatory stooges are bombastic and befuddled in an excellently complimentary way.
Gagne, who gets better every time I see him, is a good dog, and an even better dog-turned-man. He incorporates portions of his inherent dogginess into his character’s human persona with great natural style. Although the specifics of the canine gloss – his circular pacing before he sits in a chair is the funniest – are probably either stage directions or the product of director Patrick Torres, the authenticity with which Gagne pulls it off is clearly his own.
Joshua Drew and Karen Novack, two actors I wish I saw on Washington stages more often, also add much to this production. Drew is the Doctor’s assistant, Dr. Ivan Arnoldovich Bormenthal, who sounds a tone of melancholy earnestness throughout, so that it seems we are watching a tragedy instead of a farce – which, of course, makes it all the funnier. Novack plays a small army of characters, imbuing each one with wonderful specificity. It is a pleasure to watch actors of this quality giving this material a workout.
Torres, abetted by good technical work, grounds this play in quirky detail. I particularly liked the way he transforms the dog Sharik into the dog/man Sharikov. Hospital screens revolve around the recovering mongrel, and we briefly see the young hoodlum who donated his human parts (Ivan Kovatchev, in one of the shortest cameos in the history of theatre).
I also enjoyed David Crandall’s sound design, which gets the small things right. For example, when Dr. Preobrajensky’s patient, the housing bureaucracy bigwig, chews out the local bureaucrats, you can hear his voice coming out of the phone, rather than, say, as ambient sound. It is so intimidating that you half expect his hand and arm to come out next. The actors crash around Kaitlin Eckenroth’s set with verve and agility, for which fight director Casey Kaleba deserves credit.
The Heart of a Dog is an agreeable two hours of theater, done attentively and well. However, it lacks the compelling urgency of some of this good young company’s recent productions, such as last year’s Fool for Love. Here’s hoping that they find more material worthy of their talents.
The Heart of a Dog
Based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov . Translated and adapted by Frank Galati
Directed by Patrick Torres
Produced by Spooky Action Theater
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running Time: 1:50, including one intermission
When: Fri through Sun until March 8. Fri and Sat are at 7.30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays are at 2 p.m.
Where: Black Box Theatre at Montgomery College, corner of Philadelphia (East-West Highway) and Chicago Avenues, Takoma Park, MD.