Dog Paddle is a Slap in the Face that Might Be Just What We Need (5 stars)
by Johnny Monsarrat
Dog Paddle, produced by Bridge Repertory Theater, by Reto Finger, translated by Lily Sykes, directed by Guy Ben-Aharon, with scenic and lighting design by Larry Sousa, costume design by Charles Schoonmaker, sound design by Davis Reiffel, props by Zoe Golub-Sass, runs August 4-20, 2016 at the Central Square Theatre. See www.centralsquaretheater.org.
Dog Paddle is not an idle pastime. Normally I am wary about shows that make me think, but Dog Paddle, man, it really makes you think! And in a way that is not so arty that you have no idea what is going on. It’s not a comedy or comedy / drama, although there is some comedy in the show. It’s not a play you see to be entertained. It’s a play that challenges you and could change your life.
At least, it might do so if change is possible in life. To me, the main theme of the play is how humans struggle to change their lives, how they behave and make choices. Are we stuck always “dog paddling” through life, in other words, just barely getting by? Or can we rise above our animal nature and become who we want to be? The play was written by Reto Finger, a Swiss citizen, and was first produced in Germany in 2005. This production at the Central Square Theatre is the first in the United States.
Charlotte and Robert have been lovers for seven years. Then Charlotte has a big announcement. How will Robert respond? Can they re-align their relationship? What about Ingrid, the third wheel, and other lovers who come along? It seems perhaps inspired by No Exit, a very heavy play by Sartre, but far more light and accessible. Five people seem trapped in their personal quirks as they embrace or reject each other in love and friendship.
For example, how do you envision celebrating your next birthday? What if it doesn’t go like that? How do you envision your next romance? What if that doesn’t go to plan, either?
The play does dip into the abstract at times. I don’t know why the cast of five is chanting during scene transitions. Why is everyone in bare feet? There is a lot of smoking and swearing, showing its German origins. It sometimes goes into the surreal, exaggerating life in a way that is dramatic, not comedic.
But otherwise it is grounded. It spans a long period of time without becoming watered down — the play happens moment to moment, not as a montage. And it also doesn’t become hard to follow or lose its pacing, which is very difficult challenge for plays that take place over many years. (For example, see my review of Funny Girl.) The actors bring great energy, keeping the play intense throughout its short 55 minutes.
As I said, although the play is an intellectual experience worth the trip, it is not exactly a joyful ride. You won’t empathize with its characters, and may cringe as they make poor or even ugly choices. But self-delusional thinking is the topic of the play, so there have to be some train wrecks and meltdowns. Don’t expect to guess the ending, but it definitely won’t be Ebenezer Scrooge waking up completely transformed from nasty to nice because of a fragment of underdone potato gave him bad dreams. Germans know how to keep it dark and serious. German philosophers say things like, “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you,” which basically means that self-analysis is a depressing bitch.
The staging and lighting (Larry Sousa) add the surrealism. The play takes place against a backdrop of red photographs from the seven years that Robert and Charlotte have dated. Some are happy, and some sad. Excellent use is made of minimal props. Two chairs face each other to represent a table. Or they are moved close together to represent a crib. A single pillow lets the actors lying on the floor seem to be in bed. The scene changes never leave you confused as to where they are.
Stereotypical gender roles are reversed in the play. Omar Robinson (Robert) gives us the ultimate in self-delusion, where his petulant tone of voice and hurt body language give the lie to how he claims he feels. Esme Allen (Charlotte) holds back on even the most positive things that she says, foreshadowing a cruel streak that reveals itself in some of her mercantile decisions. The rest of the cast play “third wheel” to the couple, adorably by Bridgette Hayes (Ingrid), who is able to double the humor of the few laugh lines of the play with a twist of her wrist or startled expression. Ingrid was the one I was rooting for, who has the most potential to come out of the metaphorical fire morally and emotionally intact with a happy ending.
By the end of the play I was stunned with what I had just experienced. Why does ungenerous Charlotte have such power over everyone else? Can’t Robert see the brick wall coming? How can an epiphany not lead to change a year later? In what way does self-delusional thinking keep me from my own aspirations and attempts at self-change?
Dog Paddle tries to be deep, but is it? Yes, I think it is. I have grown to detest art that is all form instead of substance, like a house built from plastic mice that someone calls “art”. But Dog Paddle is the real deal. It’s the only play I’ve seen this year that might really knock you out of your rut in life, by showing you how easy and sad it is to stay in a comfortable old pattern of living.
The play is so weird that obviously I’ve had trouble describing it here. But if you are like me, hesitant to take a chance on outre types of theatre, because it so often goes over our heads, this one is a chance you should take. I’m glad to give the show a full five stars.