Ivan and the Dogs

By Hattie Naylor
Directed by David Sullivan
Featuring Kevin Melendez
Origins Theatre Company at The Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street
theatre web site:  http://www.theplayerstheatre.com/

May 5, 2011 — May 28, 2011

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
May 12, 2011

Kevin Melendez. Image by Michael Priest.

A fairy tale as grim as any Grimm could conjure with an abusive stepfather, a soon dead mother, a child making his way in the big city. In this story inspired by true events by artist cum playwright Hattie Naylor, a preschool aged child named Ivan makes his way alone in the world for a time. (Ivan could be thought of as Dorothy in Oz making his way home, with the help of a few friends.) Our narrator (Kevin Melendez) watches the threatening world around him closely, finds protectors in a citified ragtag pack of dogs, survives overtures by a pedophile, repeat visits by a bully (“Bully Boy”), and is captured by authorities. This story of survival of human horror, redeemed by dogs and ultimately by a few adults, plays sweetly and a happy ending is achieved.  We applaud the story that we are told. And yet the direction (by David Sullivan) and sound design (by Joel Diamond) often seem at odds with the stark story telling of the text, dampening the effect of this harrowing tale.

This story began as a radio play.  I found myself wondering as I watched this bare bones production with flights of physical whimsy whether the story is best served in that form rather than this kind of production that is neither fish nor fowl.  I do appreciate bare-bones story telling in general.  The set by Bart Healy is fine with its perspective lines and demarcated playing area — Noh drama in a black box. I found myself wanting less movement by the actor (direction by David Sullivan) — just tell us the story, it’s haunting enough.  I similarly wanted a bit more out of the sound (design by Joel Diamond) — we have some music that provides segues but very little else. Here we have much crashing and banging and running around involving just a few props — especially two wooden chairs that serve as walls and hideouts and impediments to run around and even something to sit on from time to time — feeling in the end as if they are merely providing the actor with something to do between phases of his storytelling.  I saw a production of Watt during this year’s Under the Radar Festival (my review here http://wp.me/pHkrs-Xo) that achieved brilliance with a man telling a story while seated for most of the performance in a chair  — this was Barry McGovern in his own adaptation of Samuel Beckett‘s novel.  Our child narrator Ivan would surely be more fidgety as an essentially sedentary story teller, but that seems more true to the nature of this play as crafted as a story told to us as an audience greeted by the child in the play’s initial moments.  Running and thrashing around distracts from the power of the events and the realizations.

This is indeed a haunting story of deprivation and survival from a child’s point of view.  Love is where you find it.  And warmth and love redeems.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 13, 2011)

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