Tuesday, September 25, 2012

THEATER: Red Dog Howls

Photo/Joan Marcus

The thing you need to know about Red Dog Howls, before you get frustrated or restless, is that Alexander Dinelaris is deliberately pacing his play in a fashion that will pay off, to spectacular results, by the finale. To that end, the bland narrative device through which Michael Kiriakos (Alfredo Narciso) addresses the audience -- often to repeat, foreshadow, or stress things you've just or are about to see -- can be forgiven. Likewise Dinelaris's insistence on cryptic exchanges between Michael and his so-underutilized-she-might-as-well-have-been-written-out-of-the-play wife, Gabriella (Florencia Lozano): it's the opposite of exposition. Here, characters dance, Lost-like, around things they would normally address by name -- the contents of a mysterious letter, a person's identity -- although, thankfully, never for very long. The point, ultimately, is that Michael is spending the play finding, after his father's death, a connection to his Armenian past that he never knew, thanks to his stumbling upon a believed-to-be-dead grandmother, Rose (Kathleen Chalfant).

And lo, Chalfant is amazing, a real treasure of the stage. Though she's playing a mysterious and heavily accented woman who insists on stitching strange names onto baby pillows, never eating in company, and trying to prepare her grandson mentally and physically for something horrific -- "You must be strong" -- she's at the same time almost always sympathetic and relateable, if not entirely understandable. Chalfant gets the best of both worlds in this character, too, for she inhabits the peculiar physicality of both this 91-year-old woman and her secret reservoir of strength, such that Rose can bring Michael to a stalemate when arm-wrestling him. Whether you want to call this a riddle wrapped in a nutshell or whatever, you can't keep your eyes off of her, you can't keep your heart from leaping out to her, and you can't stop listening to her -- even when, as the subject matter turns to the atrocities of the Armenian genocides, you might want to.

This Howl is not a Ginsburg-like explosion; it's a slow-burning keening that shifts from a growl to a wail to an all-too-intelligible guttural sound. And as it is a play both about identity and forgiveness, it more than earns both: despite a few early and only perhaps semi-flawed scenes (depending on your perspective), this is a production -- and a performance -- that will live screaming within you.

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