Heart of a dog has teeth. Teeth that bite.The Soviets immediately banned the satire when Mikhail Bulgakov first unleashed it in 1925. No surprise. It concerns a professor who operates on a stray dog named Sharik, intending to turn him into a human being and a good, servile socialist to boot.
If that sounds like sci-fi fantasy, think about contemporary experiments in cloning and transplants of animal parts into humans.
I'm reminded of the surrealistic quality of the story as I sit across from Martin Albert, who plays Schwonder, the petty, by-the-book minor official in Anne Nenarokoff's new stage adaptation of the novel.
He looks like a refugee from a 30s expressionistic film, with inch-thick Groucho Marx eyebrows, darkened cheeks and touches of red on his nose and forehead. He's still wearing his makeup for the show.
"The red is a nod to the Soviets," he laughs, grabbing a coffee and a chat between performances.
"The fact is that almost all the characters are as much dogs as Sharik is. It's seven years after the revolution, and Schwonder -- he's the chairman of the housing committee in the professor's building -- believes so much in equality and justice for everyone that he loses any sense of human dignity.
"But if anyone deserves sympathy in the play, it's Sharik. Trained to become what the society thinks is the perfect human being, he's the victim of the piece and the character who finally understands his true nature."
Heart Of A Dog is one of those rare productions that's being staged back-to-back in Canada's two official languages. It just finished a French run, and most of the cast -- including Albert -- are also doing the English version.
Ironically, it's one of the few times since graduating from theatre school that the Acadian Albert has performed onstage in French, his first language. This is something of a surprise for the man who spoke no English until he was 12 and was told in theatre school that his accent was too thick for English audiences. He went on to spend five seasons at Stratford.
"It's humbling to speak French onstage again," Albert says, with no hint of an accent. "I have to find my own feet again -- not just the language but also the energy and the impulse, which are different when performing in English or French."
He knows what he's talking about, having done Michel Tremblay's For The Pleasure Of Seeing Her Again in both languages.
"I find that French comes from the lower abdomen, while English originates just below the ribcage.
"Jean-Stéphane Roy, our director for Dog, has his own take on the difference. He says that in French you emote and speech follows, while in English the words flow and end up representing emotion."email@example.com preview
HEART OF A DOG by Anne Nenarokoff, adapted from the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, directed by Jean-Stephane Roy, with Martin Albert, Eric Goulem, Patricia Marceau, Rafal Sokolowski and William Webster. Presented by Pleiades Theatre in collaboration with Théâtre Français de Toronto at Artword (75 Portland). Previews begin Saturday (March 15), opens Wednesday (March 19) and runs to April 6, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $25-$30, Sunday pwyc, previews $12. 416-366-7723.