By Jonathan Alexandratos
Tony was right: Constance Congdon is “one of the best playwrights our country and our language has ever produced.” Those are Tony Kushner’s words, by the way, but Congdon’s beauty is much more than one somewhat hyperbolic (if correct) statement. It’s diving into her characters, plots, and language. Upon analysis, one cannot ignore the way Congdon consistently rides the wave(s) of human emotion, from the laugh-out-loud funny to the deeply dramatic. Congdon has her ear to the music of humanity, much like Virginia Woolf finding a plethora of meaning in the guttural screams of Ancient Greek characters, perhaps, as Anne Carson speculates, while listening to birds chirp in Ancient Greek outside her window. Critics seem to hate this, for some reason foreign to me. They dislike works that refuse to be put into a box. I not only posit that such works are often times brilliant, but that they are essential to 21st Century American theatre. Congdon, then, is not only among the best of our present, she is one of our vanguards, ensuring the future survival of modern drama.
Tonight, I was fortunate enough to witness the opening of a revival of Congdon’s DOG OPERA, a clear labor of love produced by and starring Darlene Rae Heller and Jason B. Schmidt, at The Little Times Square Theatre. Though the play initially opened in 1995, its themes of tragedy, pathos, jealousy, and pride are as relevant today as ever. At rise, heterosexual-but-unlucky Madeline (Heller) and homosexual-but-in-a-dry-spell Peter (Schmidt) sunbathe at Howard Beach, lightheartedly perusing the local (mostly disappointing) offering of hot guys. Just before curtain, the pair is on the same beach as Peter reveals heart-wrenching news. In between, we see waves - waves, sure, of water, but, more importantly, waves of people. Peter’s father (Matthew Healy, who plays other minor roles) attempts to reconcile old-fashioned ideologies and a wandering eye that isn’t terribly interested in his wife anymore. Madeline’s mother (Beth E. Smith, also playing a multitude of parts) confronts her own loneliness. Men (played by Jean-Paul Morales and Jonathan Draxton) go in and out of the romantic lives of our two main characters. And, as a chorus to the piece, a young, homeless, “gay whore” (his words) named Jackie (Ethan Carlson) leaves us with bits of wisdom and poetry throughout. We play the beach, as we always do, watching as these waves flow in, then withdraw, taking bits of us with them every time.
Congdon’s monologues strike me the most in her work. I felt the same way upon reading NO MERCY, her play that essentially taught me how to write science plays, and CASANOVA. No more are Congdon’s waves – peaks of hilarity followed by troughs of tragedy – encapsulated better than in these moments. Of the actors that have such monologues, Heller’s Madeline has the best timing. In listening to Heller, tragedy earned through laughter (or vice versa) feels as natural as breathing. Also, as in CASANOVA, Congdon’s use of a large Dramatis Personae (divided amongst this production’s small cast) added to the humor of the piece. Draxton and Morales do an excellent job of making otherwise-stock characters into unique, often hilarious (I’m looking at Draxton’s take on Madeline’s jock “boyfriend”) voices. However, special attention must be paid to the work of Matthew Healy and Beth E. Smith, who must change from gay to straight to conservative to liberal to masculine to feminine all in a split second – they succeed, effortlessly. Their success does not stem from how quickly they are able to change, but the emotions they evoke once they do. When Congdon isn’t employing magical realism, she tends to at least utilize the magical, and both are working in DOG OPERA. Ethan Carlson’s Jackie and Jean-Paul Morales’ Arapahoe tribesman (an image that haunts Jackie) are excellent examples. Without revealing too much of the trick, I must say, at the very least, that both Carlson and Morales create a wonderous sense of awe when speaking their emotional and, often, subtextual lines.
My critique of the play lies more in its technical aspects than its acting or writing quality. The black box Little Times Square Theatre comes together well with James Grausam’s direction, which effectively uses every inch of the space. The implied set Grausam utilizes, though, does not meld with the lighting and sound design of the show. With so minimal a set, I was expecting that minimalism to include the use of lights and sound. It does not. The complete blackout after each scene (with no transitional lighting) creates a sense of (a) needless tension, felt harshest after comedic scenes, and (b) some sort of massive set change, which never happens, because it never needs to. Moreover, the production relies too much on sound cues that sometimes upstage the actors’ voices. Sometimes, a solution to this might be found in making the actors up the volume (which, at times, they need to do), but, here, I think a more appropriate response is in cutting a number of the cues. DOG OPERA is a play about rawness – so let the production be raw. Show us everything. Keep the lights up, even through transitions. Play with these moments, the same way actors so expertly play with other aspects of the show. While these production issues do not necessarily weaken the show’s overall effectiveness, they do provide distractions as this brilliant cast works.
DOG OPERA is exactly what our City needs right now. We have all collectively experienced tragedy, and are still in its wake. Hurricane Sandy has left some unscathed, and others devastated, but all affected. DOG OPERA reminds us of the importance of community. New York City is a city that permits laughter and permits sorrow, but will not force anyone to be alone in either. This is its beauty – the idea that someone is always in your corner, no matter how crazy that corner may be. The term “black dog” is a metaphor for depression. The phrase “black dog opera,” then, may be taken to mean the song of tragedy. Thus, it is only fitting that Congdon’s play, like New York City, omit the darkness from the title, and truncate the term to the more accurate DOG OPERA – implying that, hey, maybe it can be okay, after all.
DOG OPERA runs from November 1st-3rd (at 8pm) and November 4th (at 2pm) at The Little Times Square Theatre (300 West 43rd Street, Suite 406, New York, NY), co-produced by Darlene Rae Heller and Jason B. Schmidt, starring Jason B. Schmidt, Darlene Rae Heller, Ethan Carlson, Jonathan Draxton, Beth E. Smith, Jean-Paul Morales, and Matthew Healy. It is directed by James Grausam and stage managed by Jeremy Wilson. Its technical director is Jeremy Pape, and its box office is managed by Lauren Taylor Kiss. Tickets: $15 – more information at www.dogopera.tumblr.com