Red Dog Howls

by Alexander Dinelaris
Directed by Ken rus Schmoll
Featuring Kathleen Chalfant, Alfred Narciso, Florencia Lozano
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street
September 24, 2012 (opening) — October 14, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 27, 2012

(L-R) Kathleen Chalfant, Alfredo Narciso. Image by Joan Marcus.

Red Dog Howls is crowd-sourced storytelling — three characters on stage (and a fourth in utero), at least four additional off stage family characters much discussed, and thousands of others referenced as part of the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century. Select stage moments succeed, elements of performances are compelling, and yet the storytelling feels oddly hollow. We barely know these characters, they don’t interact with but rather emote at one another, and despite a devastating description of historical butchery and murder that provides immediate justification for the play’s final moments, we are not completely moved.

Our narrator Michael (Alfredo Narciso) is in young adulthood, raised by a father and grandfather, now both deceased, after being abandoned by his mother in childhood — this detail is referenced then left hanging, the first among many such story-telling loose threads. Michael proclaims in the oft-used direct address that he has committed a sin, then opens the play to conventional scenes involving him, his pregnant wife Gabriella (Florencia Lozano), and his grandmother Rose (Kathleen Chalfant) he is led to via an address on an envelope among his recently deceased father’s belongings. A man seeking his roots through a family mystery, and a grandmother with selfish reasons of her own for him to grow emotionally and physically strong.

Chalfant’s exquisitely calibrated performance enchants and devastates in a vehicle that is wildly imbalanced. Unbelievable character transitions and incomplete storytelling (e.g. what of the long-lost mother and why no negative feelings toward father or grandfather for keeping secrets) and the omnipresent and flow-disrupting direct address by Michael result in an ultimately unsatisfactory experience.  Perhaps an aged character reflecting on the events of his own life at the end of that life might have justified such a device.  In this case, Michael is a man in young middle age narrates events just months after they transpired. The reflection is incomplete, the technique feels forced, and the emotional heart and devastating legacy of the Armenian genocide is stilled by this structural choice.  We don’t build emotionally to this moment of revelation but are rather reduced to awaiting the next narrative interruption.

Scenic design by Marsha Ginsberg and lighting design by Tyler Micoleau frame the narrative memory play in planes of light and shadow, dividing the broad and narrow NYTW performance space into several distinct playing areas, oddly literal and suggestive at once.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 29, 2012)

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