D is for Dog @ Studio/Stage

The Twilight Zone television series was famous for presenting what seemed like normal reality to viewers, only to later reveal some kind of mind-bending twist that shattered expectations. D is for Dog is the theater equivalent of The Twilight Zone. It’s fascinating, disturbing and it challenges perceptions. The play is also wonderfully produced and performed by a talented and energetic cast. The production is marred, however, by logistical confusion and a script that isn’t quite realized. Nevertheless, D is for Dog is a unique and enjoyable concept that is rarely touched on in theater and that any lover of live performances will appreciate.

The Rogers are a prototypical 50’s family, living in American suburbia. Their lives seem perfect, like something out of a commercial, complete with a peppy soundtrack excessively punctuated by plucked strings. Mr. Rogers (Guy Birtwhistle) is the breadwinner who goes off to work every morning after sharing an adorable cup of coffee with his wife. Mrs. Rogers (Nina Silver) wakes every morning to straighten up her already picture-perfect household, dusting and winking at her reflection in shiny dishes. The Rogers children, Dick (Michael Scott Allen) and Jane (Taylor Coffman), are obedient and bright-eyed and eager to learn. It’s obvious, however, that something is different about this reality when the family must consume pills at regular intervals and sunbathing is seemingly a mandatory scheduled event with a machine providing the effects of the sun. During their lessons, Dick and Jane learn that a cataclysmic war took place some time in America’s past, necessitating the Conservation Corporation where Mr. Rogers works, but they have no idea how much the world has actually changed.

D is for Dog is a surprising production in both presentation and content. First and most strikingly, the set looks fantastic, especially given the somewhat claustrophobic space of the Studio/Stage Theater. There are no scene changes so the entirety of the play takes place in the Rogers’ kitchen and living room and the set designers have done a commendable job at bringing the play to life. Real-looking cabinetry, appliances and a kitchen sink help the audience suspend disbelief. There’s also a high-tech plasma display placed in the window that serves as an exterior, presenting different times of day to orient the audience after passages of time. It’s all very technically clever and beautiful to behold. Secondly, the story is also quite remarkable and offers one of the better head fakes audiences will find in theater. It’s a rare treat to be presented with an actual mystery that will have viewers sharing explanations all throughout intermission.

The twist and how it’s presented is very satisfying, but is also problematic for the show. In theater, concessions are made for the presentation, because it would be impossible to perfectly recreate reality on stage in the way a movie does on film. For example, the play Our Town uses bare minimum sets and shuns props, forcing actors to pantomime eating, sweeping and other actions that involve manipulating physical objects. Audiences accept that the characters are holding silverware, brooms and actually touching objects in their reality and the play works perfectly. Now imagine the confusion theatergoers would feel if the Our Town characters knew they were only pantomiming and stated as much to the audience. That same feeling of unfair storytelling will creep into audiences’ minds in D is for Dog once they have to start picking and choosing what is literally happening and what is theatrically happening on stage.

With so many questions unanswered, it’s difficult to accurately critique the actors. On one hand, when the play begins and seems like something out of a soap commercial from the 50’s, the cast is pitch perfect with their plastic smiles and salesman-like line delivery. As caricatures of people possibly illustrating some kind of greater message about the family unit, the cast does a fine job at setting up a satirical punch line. It’s when the audience learns that the cast is playing it straight that their performances become questionable, but that might be more related to limitations in the writing. There just isn’t much character development in the script for the actors to work with. Still, they do an admirable job adding nuance and idiosyncrasies to their roles, like Nina Silver’s quick fluffing of her curls before answering the phone or Taylor Coffman’s echoing of her character name every time she hears it. Standout performances are given by Guy Birtwhistle and Nina Silver. Birtwhistle is the only character with any kind of arc and he maximizes every moment of it, balancing the façade of his home life with the reality of his work life, while under pressure to maintain a terrible secret that could jeopardize both. Silver, on the other hand, has every look of a woman trapped in her own body. When she plays front she smiles contentedly, but her eyes betray an indescribable panic that is unsettling on a biological level.

D is for Dog presents something special in theater in that it focuses more on the technical features rather than the human. There’s good use of multimedia, surround sound, puppets and more for the senses to feast on. Ultimately, however, audiences watch theater for human connection, which is where this production falls short. All too often the characters feel like they’re adhering to scripted lives rather than making organic choices. Nevertheless, D is for Dog is definitely worth watching for its spectacle and conversation-churning plot.

520 North Western Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90004-2606
213.596.9468 or www.rougueartists.org
Performances: July 1 – Aug. 7:
Fridays @ 8 pm: July 1 (OPEN), 8, 15, 22, 29; August 5
Saturdays @ 8 pm: July 2, 9, 16, 23, 30; August 6
Sundays @ 4 pm: July 3, 10, 17, 24, 31; August 7
Sundays @ 8 pm: July 3, 10, 17, 24, 31; August 7
General admission: $20
Full-time students with ID: $15:
Pay-what-you-can: Sunday matinees @ 4 pm