Lifeline Theatre

Someone is kidnapping the dalmatians of London–specifically, the 15 puppies of Pongo and Missis of Regents Park. And though Mr. and Mrs. Dearly (whom we egotistical humans would call their owners) have even called Scotland Yard, ultimately it’s up to the parents to deliver not only their own tots but scores of others from a grisly fate at the hands of the fashionable but heartless Cruella DeVil. Communicating through an oral network (the precise nature of which audience members are sworn never to reveal), the entire canine population of England–and a few feline representatives as well–unite to pull off one of the most perilous and thrilling rescues since Ingrid Bergman led the orphans to freedom in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

Despite its general blandness the Disney animated feature (recently rereleased) remains the definitive version of Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel, One Hundred and One Dalmatians. The Lifeline Kid Series lives up to its well-founded reputation for intelligent, innovative children’s theater, however, with Meryl Friedman’s briskly paced adaptation: it wraps the theme of parental devotion in a dynamite adventure saga brimful of the you-are-there immediacy peculiar to live theater. We follow the suburban-bred Pongo and Missis in their arduous journey over a hundred miles of wintry countryside, meeting an assortment of helpful strangers along the way: a dotty old retriever who gives them shelter, a bluff sheepdog whose military knowledge proves invaluable in engineering the evacuation (with assistance from a loyal patrol cat), and a security terrier for a van line who offers the refugees a ride in his truck. There are hairbreadth escapes from the pursuing DeVil and her cohorts, and one final moment of fear and uncertainty as Pongo and Missis wonder if the Dearlys will recognize them under the camouflage they’ve adopted.

Under Dorothy Milne’s spirited direction, Lifeline’s all-star cast gallop through their paces with agility and precision, keeping each character distinct–no easy task with two actors (Karen Hough and Greg Holliman, whom Lifeline regulars will remember as the Chicken Man in Lizard Music) playing no less than eight roles, ranging from DeVil’s slow-witted toughs to the “gentle, obedient, and unusually intelligent . . . almost canine at times” Mr. and Mrs. Dearly. J. David Blazevich and Kristie Berger, the only actors to play only one role apiece, make Pongo and Missis suitably naive but courageous. The good folks can only be as good as the bad are bad, however, and Alexandra Billings, never one to let her audience down, delivers a hallelujah chorus of a performance as Cruella DeVil–costumed like a strutting yeti, chortling malevolently in three octaves, and generating so much flat-out menace that one child scrambled over three laps to put more distance between herself and the environmentally incorrect villainess. (Note to audience members: don’t wear a fur coat to this play unless you’re prepared to be identified with mass murder.)

Lifeline’s production has everything: excitement, pathos, humor, affection, a clear but never heavy-handed humanitarian message, lots of cute little dalmatian puppies (perhaps a little less than a hundred, though too many for me to count) and of course the puckish, irrepressible Billings, whose playful ad-libbing is as unstoppable and delightful as holiday snow.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.