Peppy, tuneful music instantly sets the stage for a family-friendly 1950s sitcom. Introducing the Rogers family: live from their shiny formica kitchen! Mr. Rogers works at the Conservation Corporation while his dutiful wife cooks, cleans, and home-schools their adorable children Dick and Jane. They’re the perfect, loving nuclear family. But “nuclear” might be a more sinister and apt descriptor than the Rogers could ever imagine.
In Rogue Artists Ensemble’s D is for Dog, a campy and nostalgic setup gradually gives way to a sci-fi thriller that upends the Rogers’ – and the audience’s – notions of reality. Playwright Katie Polebaum crafts a carefully-plotted narrative that may seem playfully cliche at the start – but ultimately pays off, as the Rogers 1950s suburban utopia is subtly and slowly displaced. Why do Mrs. Rogers and the children never leave the house? What are these strange, colored pills that cure all the family’s ills? Why have the children never heard of man’s best friend, the dog — or any other animals, for that matter? By the time Mr. Rogers whips out an iPad, there is clearly a glitch in the matrix.
One of Los Angeles theater’s greatest strengths is its collaborative pulse, and Rogue Artists Ensemble reaches a new collective peak in this multidisciplinary work. Sean Cawelti directs a well-paced dark comedy that thrives on the actors’ layered performances. Mrs. Rogers (the exceptional Nina Silver) flits from chore to chore, but a nervous twitch calls into question that perfect smile. Michael Scott Allen and Taylor Coffman revert to utterly convincing childlike mischief and wonder as Dick and Jane. Meanwhile, Mr. Rogers (Guy Birtwhistle) visibly bears the burden of the corporation’s secrets.
As mysteries begin to unravel, Rogue Artists intertwine multiple modes of storytelling – from crisp video design (Sean T. Cawelti, Muhammad Saleh, and Matthew G. Hill) to unforgettable puppets (deftly manned by Heidi Hilliker and Benjamin Messmer) to drive the plot to its unexpected conclusion. Every element of D is for Dog is of the same world: no small feat, especially when that world keeps shifting identities, with one “reality” giving way to another. John Nobori and Ben Phelps’ smart underscoring is of particular note in unifying this strange and wondrous play.
D is for Dog‘s post-apocalyptic take on the 1950s sitcom rings eerily relevant in Hollywood, where the line between fiction and reality is blurred. A nice coat of film fiction can conceal a world of concerns. How refreshing to see these myths start to peel in a black box theater tucked away on Western Avenue: a reminder of what an imaginative, thought-provoking theater town LA can be.
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Lately, I have taken to calling my life “imaginary.” My life certainly has a nice and glowing veneer: researching and writing for my PhD, composing and music directing, theatergoing with friends. I saw D is for Dog during an action-packed theater day with fellow critic Tony Frankel, whose review is published in Stage & Cinema. As Tony knows all too well, the “imaginary life” of a theater critic is grand – but there is legitimate, time-consuming work to this unpaid gig, too. This review marks my 100th blog post. Thank you to all who take the time to read what I take the time to write, and please keep up the conversation!