at the Lunar Cabaret
Lives of the Monster Dogs
The mad scientist is a hard character for writers to resist. His superior intellect gives the author license to indulge in the archest language and tone, to make him speak in insanely literary formulations, then play the resulting slide from dialogue to oration off as a creepy atmospheric effect. The results of the scientist’s awful experiments, contextualized correctly, can symbolize both the tragedy of awareness and those reliable villains rationality, science, and technology, making him a nice mix of sympathetic and repulsive. Best of all, the cataclysmic ending his story requires makes sleight-of-hand second acts a viable–if risky–option.
Like the unhinged geniuses at their centers, two sci-fi pieces now playing–the Drain’s The Bubonic Homunculus and WNEP Theater’s Lives of the Monster Dogs–have ambitious, complicated expository beginnings and disastrous conclusions, and both incorporate the drop-off as a structural conceit. The ploy is less than successful in both–but these shows are elegant, intriguing failures. Since in many ways they’re closet dramas cemented to untranslatable novelistic effects, that they work at all is something of a feat. Ultimately both are undone by stories that would simply have petered out regardless of execution–but these theatrical experiments do have some remarkable results.
Most of the “useful findings” come from The Bubonic Homunculus, part of the Rhinoceros Theater Festival. Writer-director John Hannon has a smart, wry touch with genre boilerplate and metatextual references, and his cast is equally sharp, talented, and versatile. Everyone seems well versed in the specific tropes–Universal and Hammer horror films, goth-rock androgyny, and buckets and buckets of Poe–that Hannon dusts off, which goes a long way toward justifying the sometimes showily knowledgeable script. Its second half is undeniably disappointing, but until then it’s great fun.
The story unfolds through the long, peripatetic soliloquy of the former “young prodigy” Dr. Node. Searching for the cure to a plaguelike virus somewhere between cancer and an autoimmune disorder, he stumbles on a “solution”: to become the virus himself via “suspension of the circadian clock.” Applying the treatment, he’s transformed into the ghastly–but now immortal–title creature, whose very touch is lethal, and left to wander the world alone.
He describes all this by talking as though to himself, in elliptically lyrical, irregularly rhyming passages. Like many postapocalyptic fictions, The Bubonic Homunculus plays up the schizophrenic aspect of its protagonist’s speeches, but in uniquely bold, grisly fashion. Surrounded by his victims, Node reenacts his deadly mutation and their deaths using the corpses as puppets, a form of zombie slapstick that handily illustrates his obsessive drive and desolate subjectivity. Once summoned up for a scene, his former colleagues and acquaintances walk and talk by themselves–but the moment focus shifts or a scene ends they collapse in a heap. Node’s vexed shuttling between characters who expire whenever he turns his back is a masterpiece of black Keaton-esque humor.
Everything about these sequences is terrific. Star Julian Stetkevych combines a vintage Colin Clive dialect with Peter Murphy’s mannerisms and physicality. Female lead Stacy Sargent could have been plucked from any of a zillion 60s horror movies starring girls in Empire dresses. The writing is a nifty pseudoscientific blend of Mary Shelley, Poe, and Dr. Seuss; the direction clicks; the sound track pulses, shimmers, and echoes with creeping tension. It’s all silly, derivative, overliterate–but it works.
Then come acts two and three. Once Node has brought us up-to-date and starts stalking the depopulated planet, there’s nothing left for him to do but eat hearts ripped from cadavers, pointlessly manipulate the dead, and argue with two talking birds: the ravens Thought and Memory, who overextend the play’s solipsistic conversational device into leaden obviousness. Offering at least one rap too many on a certain chamber door, they’re textbook cases of mistaking annoying for enigmatic. And the way their catechism with Node prods the story to some resolution is transparent.
This stuff isn’t terrible–it’s even defensible as a way out of the corner Hannon writes himself into. And the barren second act suits the depiction of a cataclysm’s silent, empty aftermath. But basically the script just runs out of steam. The obligatory forced levity of a section about a sitcomish middle-American family seems merely dutiful; the futuristic third act doesn’t discover anything new, though the supporting cast nicely negotiate the shift in idiom; and without the diversionary physical comedy of the first act, Node’s monologues come to seem simple recitation.
WNEP Theater’s Lives of the Monster Dogs faces bigger problems than those posed by killing off your cast. The Kirsten Bakis novel on which it’s based is all exposition, made up of letters, diary entries, and articles by numerous characters, dogs and humans alike. The novel’s best points are its fantastic textures–the faint mechanical whir of prosthetic voice boxes, the look of its killer dogs’ artificial hands and Prussian officers’ uniforms. It doesn’t have an end, however, or even a real middle: Bakis invokes the final-disaster clause of the mad-scientist contract, under cover of mass suicides and disintegrating journal entries burying her fabulous but stillborn back story. Under the best circumstances adapters Jen Ellison and Bob Wilson would have had their hands full putting any of this onstage, and some bad decisions and uneven performances compound their difficulties.
Bakis’s novel documents the rise and fall of a race of superintelligent, humanlike dogs, focusing on its three great leaders: sociopathic 19th-century bioengineer Augustus Rank, who first undertakes to breed the dogs; monster dog Mops Hacker, who leads them in revolt 100 years later; and monster dog Klaue Lutz, who shepherds their relocation to 21st-century New York City. Ellison and Wilson clearly had no choice but to condense Bakis’s saga and pare its overlapping narratives down to the stories of its two most compelling characters, Hacker and Rank, told simultaneously. Director Seth Fisher can’t be blamed for opting out of special-
effects-driven literalism. But reducing Bakis’s stable of narrators to one–the dog Ludwig von Sacher–seriously compromises many characterizations.
Without the authorial function she has in the novel, human narrator Cleo Pira doesn’t have much of a function at all. Without a diaristic voice, Rank loses much of his fanatical edge. And without anything to balance his narration, the historian von Sacher, chiefly an articulator of theme, becomes too much the star of the show. Meanwhile the novel’s loose constellation of meanings is distilled to two leitmotivs–the failure or absence of the father and the unnatural terror of consciousness–stated and restated in dull repetitions. By the time the show runs up against Bakis’s essential, probably irredeemable voids of action and resolution, these issues seem almost academic.
A few of the actors are excellent–Shawn Yardley, coadapter Wilson as Lutz, and Ronald Kuzava as Hacker all do marvelous jobs mixing caninisms with German accents, and their interpretations of the characters are dead-on. But a combination of unnuanced acting and misguided direction hound the other players. Brandon Bruce’s Ludwig is technically well-done but too brittle and strident to be sympathetic. Georgann Charuhas’s Cleo seems absent even for a cipher. And Jared Jensen conveys none of Rank’s twisted charisma and authority, a glaring omission that can’t be blamed on the novel.
Still, the history is interesting for a while, Bakis’s vague Nazi allegory comes off pretty well, and most of the show’s early failures stem from noble attempts to stay faithful to the novel. The second act, however, feverishly (and unconvincingly) synopsizes a blizzard of offstage violence, with the narrator and characters breaking into arguments, forcibly “crystallizing” the play’s issues into a final statement while depicting mental breakdown–much as in The Bubonic Homunculus. In rapid succession, Rank commits suicide, Hacker falls, the rest die–all of them unfulfilled, all adding their voices to a crescendo of despair.
But since nothing much works in the first act, the hasty if voluminous tying up of ends in the second is completely alienating, not a source of dismay–a reflection of the novel’s stubbornly literary quality and peculiar flaws. In a work like The Bubonic Homunculus, the flames that consume the villain’s lair as the credits roll seem a plausible tragic accident. But here even the blueprint points to arson.