Director Kelly Thornton and actor Steve Cumyn sink their teeth into multi-layered script.
WILD DOGS adapted by Anne Hardcastle from Helen Humphreys’s novel, directed by Kelly Thornton, with Tamara Podemski, Les Carlson, Steve Cumyn, Raven Dauda, Stephen Joffe, Tony Nappo and Taylor Trowbridge. Presented by Nightwood in association with Canadian Stage at Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Previews from Saturday (October 4), opens October 9 and runs to November 8, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm and Saturday 2 pm. $20-$42, Monday pwyc, previews $25. 416-368-3110.
Though we wear civilized trappings, how close are we humans to being untamed?
That's one of the questions at the growling heart of Helen Humphreys's award-winning novel Wild Dogs, which has been arranged for the stage by Anne Hardcastle.
Most of the play's characters are an assortment of people whose previously devoted dogs have turned wild. They won't respond to their former owners, who gather at the perimeter of the woods, attempting to bring them home. Instead, they've formed a pack resembling wolves rather than domesticated animals; one actually is a wolf.
"All the owners are people who, like most of the dogs, have been thrown out," says Nightwood artistic director Kelly Thornton, who helms the show. "Like the pets on whom they depended, they're outcasts, living on the edge of an existential wilderness.
"But they won't, like their dogs, cross into the woods. They stay on the edge of the field, afraid to go in, and have formed a pack themselves. They've lost their own identities and, in finding each other, have discovered a new group identity."
It's the tension between the wild wolf and the civilized canine that Thornton sees as central to the story.
"I consider the six of them as lone wolves who long for a connection. It's a dichotomy we all deal with: our human need to belong with others but the ongoing struggle to break out of the pack and be alone."
While five of the dogs have been abandoned for various reasons, the sixth, an apricot standard poodle, simply runs away from his owner, Malcolm.
"That's a telling fact," says actor Steve Cumyn, who plays Malcolm. "Poodles are very smart dogs, and Malcolm has chosen his dog because he needs guidance. He comes from a dysfunctional family, has a great fear of abandonment and suffers from depression."
Malcolm, an artist, is part of the play's emotional daisy chain. His depression keeps him from painting, and he sees in Alice, one of the other dog owners, a muse who can re-inspire his work
. But Alice, fleeing a bad breakup, gets involved with Rachel, a wildlife biologist who's unsure of commitment.
"The two women go through a dance of love filled with mixed messages, the desire to go ahead and the simultaneous temptation to pull back," offers the director. "The dynamic can be the same in a heterosexual relationship, with both partners carrying a complicated bag of insecurities and conflicting desires.
"Rachel sees herself as the loner here, but in fact she's the one who's afraid to cross the threshold into an emotional wilderness. Love calls for that kind of bravery, and Alice is the braver of the two."
Everything comes to a head with the introduction of a seventh character, Spencer, who doesn't own a dog. He's part of a group that goes hunting the wild animals, and his actions move the play toward a cataclysmic finale.
"Helen has said that she wanted her book to break into a run," says Thornton. "That's what happens when we meet Spencer. The story accelerates and becomes very dark."
Hardcastle's adaptation is a challenging one, with the characters' individual lines on the page resembling strands of wool woven into a poetic, narrative tapestry. They speak some lines to themselves, some to the audience and some as dialogue to another character.
"We've discovered that the actors must give equal value to the other figures onstage and to the audience," explains Thornton. "They have to be able to peek out from behind the fourth wall and then go back behind it."
"The performing styles feel like they come from the musical theatre tradition," adds Cumyn. "The whole company becomes a chorus and takes on the job of narrating, which means they know what's to come.
"I can live in a scene but step out of it, as Malcolm, to clarify something for the viewer. It means living in past, present and future all at once. In fact, time ceases to matter during the telling of the tale."