How It’s New York: Since its founding in 2002, Origin Theatre Company has presented 40 premieres of European plays. Kevin Melendez, who stars, has gotten raves for his performances in musical theatre in the area (Star-Ledger critic Peter Filichia raved about his performance in Sweeney Todd in 2010).
How It’s Irish: Origin Theatre Company was founded by Limerick-man George C. Heslin; the company also presents the 1st Irish Festival. Director David Sullivan also directed Irish playwright Ronan Noon’es The Atheist Off-Broadway, and while I wasn’t that keen on Noone’s Little Black Dress (our review is here); there’s no doubt he’s a significant writer.
|Kevin Melendez (Michael Priest)|
I’m always terrified by plays that feature animals in the title because it usually means that the animal is going to get it, and I really, really love animals. If the animal is alive at the end of the play, he’s usually been brutalized, scared, or otherwise upset. Even happy endings don’t make up for the overwhelming tension I suffer throughout. This is true of War Horse, and it’s true, too, of Ivan and the Dogs, by English writer Hattie Naylor, making its American Premiere via Origin Theatre. But you should see it anyway. It has three more performances– next Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It’s a remarkable, haunting play, performed with charm, nuance and charisma by Kevin Melendez as Ivan Mishukov.
Ivan and the Dogs is based on the true story of Ivan Mishukov, a four-year old child who runs away from a dangerously abusive home in Russia and lives on the streets for two years, taken in by a kindly pack of dogs. He learns to speak dog, and finds that dog’s humanity to him far outstrips that of human beings to themselves or to animals, if by humanity we mean things like “compassion, fair dealings, kindness.”
And [SPOILER ALERT] I’ll just warn you now that while there is no happy ending for the dogs, you can relax for most of the play about them. Nobody eats them. At least, not onstage. [SPOILER OVER]
So good is Melendez that although he’s the only one onstage I could swear he conjured up the dogs, and that I’ve seen an image of Belka, the white lovely dog with sad, hungry eyes who is a little boy’s idea of Mother and Heaven rolled into one.
Naylor’s play has been nominated for an Olivier, and was apparently originally conceived as a radio play. But it works so well as a physical piece of work that it’s hard to imagine that radio could do anything but diminish it.
It’s a simple enough story, but it has all the genuine horror and magic of a Grimm’s fairy tale. Ivan tells us that it was a cold winter, that mothers and fathers needed to get rid of anything that needed to eat, drink, or be kept warm. First the dogs are taken to the other side of the city and left. Then some begin to take the children. This couldn’t be more like the beginning of “Hansel and Gretel” if it tried.
Melendez speaks in a Russian accent, a choice that is out of fashion but works very well (it’s become the fashion not to use accents in a one-character drama, or if everyone has the same one– there’s a logic to it but it rarely actually works. See, for example, how the main character in Tom Stoppard’s Rock and Roll has a Czech accent in England and no accent in Prague; this is supposed to signify when he’s speaking his own language or not, but in practice, most audience members it was an actor’s mistake). To call Ivan “precocious” is an understatement; his thoughts and coping skills seem far beyond what a four year old could possibly be capable of, but it’s possible. And apparently it happened.
It’s an older Ivan who is talking to us, anyway, but he recalls his observations with an innocent purity that is completely touching. We’re in Yeltsin’s Russia, where gangsters rule the Wild East and runaways sniff glue to keep warm, or steal potatoes from drunks. How four-year old Ivan knows what a gangster is I’m not quite sure, but I went with it. Handsome and strained looking in a printed sweatshirt (costume design by Stephanie Nichols), Melendez jumps effortlessly back and forth between his narration and embodying his story. Early on, after Ivan has run away, everyone is hostile to him. Ivan to be the only person in the entire universe who expects kindness and seeks it in others– and I wondered how much more of this I could take.
|Kevin Melendez (Michael Priest)|
It’s right at this moment in the show that Ivan first encounters Belkas. Ivan gradually befriends this dog (in a lovely sequence reminiscent of the taming of the fox in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince). The sweet, maternal dog watches over him that night, and soon introduces him to her pack– although she won’t let him into the den. To keep from starving, Ivan begs. When a man tries to molest him, he barks furiously and his pack come and rescue him. But, as Ivan points out, it’s a dangerous world when you are small, and that goes for children and dogs. Ivan needs to get food for himself and his pack, but in doing so he jeopardizes all of their safety.
Melendez turns in an extraordinary, haunting performance. I’ve found myself going back to the moment when he barks at Belka outside the den and she barks back. “It’s a good bark,” Ivan tells us, looking up. And it is. Melendez convincingly delivers a whole vocabulary of barks of these hero dogs. There isn’t a whole lot of humor in the play, but I did like a moment later on, after Ivan has been adopted, when he scorns a housedog who never growls or barks.
David Sullivan’s direction neatly sews the present and the past together. Sound designer/Composer Joel Diamond helps fill this world, with truly frightening slams and effects. Ivan’s future looks like a reasonably good one, adopted by a decent seeming person. Animal lovers will not be surprised that when it comes to survival, dogs behave better than people. Why do we say “It’s a dog eat dog world” when we mean it’s a “people stomp on people world?” (do dogs eat dogs?). But it’s satisfying to see the fundamental Goodness of Dogs represented here anyway, and it becomes, somehow, a way of reclaiming humanity too. Just don’t go see it too soon after seeing War Horse. You’ve been warned.
p.s. for great writing from a dog’s eye view, check out Merrill Markoe’s Nose Down, Eyes Up, and anything else she writes. The “uh oh” factor doesn’t apply in books, for some reason, and this one is a laugh out loud treat.