Overlong and undercooked, Highwood Theatre’s The Dog Must Die puts the stop in dystopia. This tale of a society in which something has gone terribly, terribly wrong begins promisingly enough, with playwright Madison Middleton establishing a mystery at the play’s outset, and cunningly spinning clues at a good pace, but it deflates about a third of the way through, and thereafter falls into recriminations, implausible motivations and an improbable deus ex machina to bring the play to an end.
Many floors underneath the surface of the earth, Najet, a doctor (Gayle Carney), Abdu. a philosophy teacher (William Greene) and Maris (also called Marti in the program, and Marissa in the play), an architect (Nina Marti) are huddled in a lounge with an agriculturalist (Zoe Walpole) and her brother (Michael Makar). The brother is suffering from some sort of mental illness which causes him to snort, whimper, utter sentence fragments and occasionally quote long passages from The Tempest. They are waiting for the annual broadcast from “them” — a quasi-governmental group that controls the building to which they are confined. There has been a terrible environmental crisis of an unspecified cause which has devastated the surface world. The confined inhabitants are the only survivors.
What are they going to do about it? Complain, mostly, about how they miss the sun and the feeling of the wind on their skin and the taste of real food, instead of the laboratory-grown stuff they’re fed. For variety, we are shown scenes taken from the characters’ pasts — Abdu and the brother playing chess in the park; Najet in her medical office talking to her mother; Marissa as a child, playing on the beach before being called home by her mom.
The central dilemma appears to be that the agriculturalist is allowed on the surface, in heavy protective gear, in order to pursue agriculture. Najat is incensed, because after all she is a doctor and should be allowed outside (there is an implication of racial bias as well.) But unless she has some patients on the outside that she can treat (and she doesn’t), her complaint makes no sense. Nonetheless, a great deal of the play is given over to Najat’s rage and despair, and the efforts of the others to placate her.
The Dog Must Die
closes February 11, 2018
Details and tickets
This is not the only plot hole. Characters emphasize again and again that the building’s residents are there because of their unique qualifications. While I can imagine invitations being extended to agriculturalists, medical doctors, architects and philosophers, it is harder for me to understand what unique qualifications the Tempest-quoting brother has.
Marti adequately discharges the role of Marissa, but it’s unclear why the character is in the play at all. Her backstory does nothing to advance the play, and neither does she. Marissa is an appealing character — preternaturally cheery, and good-natured — but the conflict is primarily between Najat and the agriculturalist, with Abdu serving as mediator. Marissa is, as we come to learn, both Latina and sexually ambiguous, and it’s hard to avoid the impression that playwright Middleton used the character to check off some boxes.
The Dog Must Die is full of artless exposition (science fiction generally is prey to that) and windy rhetoric; Greene handles it well but the other actors make heavy weather of it. Generally speaking, in the show I saw the actors had difficulty coming in on the end of each other’s lines, either crashing into each other or betraying that millisecond delay between lines which is common to under-rehearsed productions. Scene changes were painfully slow; in particular, there was so much crashing and thrashing between the first scene and the second that the audience would have been justified in concluding that the threatened apocalypse had arrived at that moment. Carney plays her dramatic scenes convincingly, but because she delivered the everyday dialogue with which the play opens with nearly the same degree of dramatic emphasis, her credibility for her big scene is diminished. If director Samuel Intrater is to get anything close to maximum value from this play, he needs to have the dialogue go faster and the action go more smoothly.
Still, there is some good work being done here. Greene is a convincingly avuncular presence, and he does about as well as anyone can with his lines. The cast is, in general, ingratiating. And Middleton has some funny lines and some piquant, original observations which flow naturally from character and actions. Middleton has real writing gifts, and it is my hope — and expectation — that she will write a better play soon.
One final note. Although the actors are all professionals, Middleton and Intrater are both twelfth-graders. Most twelfth-graders, if they write or direct at all, do so for student productions, sheltered from the prying eyes of the general public. In this instance, they, and Highwood Theatre, demanded to be considered on the same basis as other professional theaters. I have done so because to do otherwise would be condescending and insulting. Middleton and Intrater are at the beginning of their theatrical careers, and nothing I or anyone else says will bring them to an end.
The Dog Must Die by Madison Middleton, directed by Samuel Intrater, featuring Zoe Walpole, William Greene, Gayle Carney, Michael Makar, and Nina Marti . Set design: Kevin Kearney . Lighting design: Simon Ellerby . Costume Design: Tip Letsche, Paulina Campbell . Stage Manager: Hunter Simmons . Produced by The Highwood Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.