Main Street Theater's Dog Act Isn't Best in Show

The set-up:

In the regional premiere of Dog Act, by Liz Duffy Adams, some culture is kept alive in a post-apocalyptic world by a tiny traveling group of vaudevillians.

The execution:

Almost nothing happens in the first act, except for some less-than-gripping exposition about the decline of civilization, although we do meet the six characters. Playwright Adams hides the really relevant exposition until well into Act Two, so we are deliberately left in the dark for most of the play. Tamara Siler as Rozetta Stone manages a rundown relic of a cart that is her performance stage, assisted by Philip Hays as Dog, a human who has volunteered to be demoted to a dog - we learn why in Act Two. They have a pleasant working relationship, but that's about it. They are joined by two other actors traveling together: Celeste Roberts as Vera Similitude and Beth Lazarou as Jo-Jo the Bald-Faced Liar, and these seem to have a closer relationship -- what it is we never learn, though Vera is the boss here. David Wald portrays Coke and Ross Bautsch portrays Bud (get it?) - these are Scavengers, and they quarrel all the time and fight a lot; it's not all peaches and cream in a dystopian society.

The actors are really excellent, but what they are required to do, and say, is not. The tone of the play is as elusive as quicksilver and as changeable as a chameleon. The acting styles are so varied that it was like being in a multiplex, with the actors on stage all on break from different shows. The Scavengers drop the F-bomb close to every-other-word, and speak a Shakespearean vernacular with a cockney accent, and dress like the Vikings in the Capital One commercial. Rozetta Stone speaks Ebonics with Dog and the others, but speaks differently when orating on stage. Vera has a British accent and Jo-Jo mostly just looks angry. Dog doesn't speak much, and when there is a need to defend his friends, we get "Bark, Bark!" instead of "Arf! Arf!"

The central parallel is to the play-within-a-play put on by Peter Quince's acting troupe of craftsmen in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, so the amateurish look of the shabby troupe is explained, as is the winking at the audience - a fake fire is simulated when Jo-Jo seeks and locates the electric socket to plug it in. And the exaggerated acting of the Scavengers fits the reference - they are not meant to be persuasive actors. Playwright Adams has created a pastiche of events - a lot does happen in Act Two - and strung the play with attempted cleverness, like candy apples on a Christmas tree The director, Andrew Ruthven, hasn't found the combination to make this work, but I don't think anyone could.

Close to the end, there is a life-and-death situation in which superb acting is called for, from Vera, and we are led to believe that Vera has pulled this off, though by now we have learned that the threatening Scavengers are stupid and gullible, so it hardly matters. There is a predictable "surprise" at the end - only a Scavenger wouldn't see it coming, and Adams provides a ray of hope in the final moments, so inappropriate that I would have cringed, had I any cringes left.

The verdict:

Gifted actors do their best to elevate a play that doesn't take itself seriously, but fail to achieve lift-off.

Dog Act continues through July 29 at Main Street Theater - Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd. For information or ticketing, call 713-524-6706 or visit the company website.

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