Dogs are interesting.
Here’s a wild animal that we decided to co-habitate with – not tame, not really. Dogs are no more tame than we are; social animals looking for acceptance and adopting the behaviors they witness around themselves. They want to be loved as much as we do but are more honest about it, giving so much and asking only for a place to live, the occasional walk, and maybe a cookie.
The Fugue Theater is producing an operetta about that strange relationship. Off Leash, named for an off-leash dog park, is about four dogs and their humans, the lives they all live and the ease with which everyone can get a little lost in what’s expected as opposed to what is.
Starting this theme off are the characters of Buddy, and his human, JB (both played by Kerry van der Griend). JB is a shy dog who spends much of his time at the off-leash park lying under a bench, staying close to his human. JB assumes that this is because his dog is shy, but we learn that this isn’t so much the case – Buddy stays close to his human because his human needs that support and comfort; he’s gone through a messy divorce from an emotionally abusive relationship that now has his questioning everyone he does.
JB runs into an aging dog, Jacques, whose human happens to be his estranged uncle, Danny (both played by Simon Webb). Danny would like to reconnect in his old age, which JB assumes is coming from a place of guilt – so when Danny says that JB’s mother was terrified of her son catching “the gay” from her brother, it’s an admission that shocks JB and allows him to connect with someone he can feel safe around.
That moment comes in the first few minutes, but the entire play is full of those moments, the narratives we give ourselves getting in the way of the lives we can live.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the characters of Sasha and her human, Isola (both played by Laura Di Cicco). Sasha is a pure-bred show dog that has been trained to obey. Isola has gotten her for protection instead of affection, but a dog doesn’t understand that. Dogs love without condition, but accept the conditions put on them – they’re pack animals, like humans, but much more honest about what they need.
Paralleling that sort of control is Isola herself. Grounded in a world of unquestioning obedience, she’s moved herself up a social hierarchy to make that obedience work for her. She’s intelligent enough to recognize that some of what she does is evil, but is not invested in changing a system that works for her. She’s as wound up as Sasha, who, whenever given a free moment will chew the wall or bite her own tail from the stress she lives under.
Lastly, there is Ruby, a pitbull rescue dog that is being cared for by an older woman, Carol (both played by Karen Ydenberg). It amazes me that pitbulls are given such a bad rap when they were literally bred to watch over children – it’s their humans that have failed them, and not they that have failed us. Carol is all too aware of this, but the other humans are too wrapped in sensationalism to question what they’ve heard, and all too willing to believe the worst. That’s why pitbulls are to be muzzled at all times.
The other dogs, of course, have no such trepidation.
Carol is someone who cares for children and lost causes both. We get that right from the start, but it’s confirmed when we learn that she’s looking for people to help her save both the off-leash park itself and, later, her daughter. The off-leash park is in danger as humanity does its level best to develop and pave over the wild places that both dogs and humans need to thrive; there’s no plan for what to do with the park, only a desire to pave over it.
It’s been argued that the wildest parts of our nature have no place in the modern world. We don’t play unless it’s competition, we don’t run unless it’s in gyms, don’t climb unless it’s an organized activity in the proper setting. Dogs, being more honest than humans, are happy to run and play. Ruby is unmuzzled, then all four dogs make a break for the underbrush, and that’s when tragedy strikes.
Jacques is murdered by means of decapitation.
The immediate assumption by the humans is that the pitbull did it. Buddy and Sasha seem fine with Ruby, but Isola hears nothing of it. She knows how pitbulls are; she’s never met one until now but she’s heard about them in the news.
“Your dog is violent” Isola says. “She needs to be put down.”
There’s no evidence of this; Ruby doesn’t have any blood on her mouth. Despite this, the other humans are willing to believe this narrative, and even Carol seems doubtful as to her dog’s innocence. We’re too invested in the way things are supposed to be and doubt our own experiences because of it – and this can sometimes have fatal results.
At the very least, this discord between what is and what we want can cause damage within ourselves. Poor Sasha feels this intently – she remembers that another dog died in those bushes, but she also knows that she’s supposed to get the balls that Isola throws. So, when one gets thrown by accident really far towards and then past those bushes, she runs and reflects that she must have been bad, that maybe Isola is punishing her, but this is what she has to do to be accepted and even loved.
These concepts are the heart and soul of Off-Leash, and explaining the complexity of the play feels like explaining the benefits of having a dog to someone that’s never lived with one. It’s simple and cute and has a lot of funny moments, from human actors doing their best to be dogs, to some of the situations and dialogue. It’s touching, with the monologues and themes that it explores. It trots along the fine line of simple fun and thoughtful discourse, and does it with enough aplomb that anyone should be able to enjoy it, but it is a production that will give you exactly how much you put into it.
Bill Murray once said “I’m suspicious of people who don’t like dogs, but I trust a dog when it doesn’t like a person.” The rest of us could learn from that, I think, whether the person in question has two or four legs.
Photography provided by Mark Halliday, who you can visit by clicking his name.