Originally broadcast on CJSF Radio, 1995.

Four Dogs and a Bone

by John Patrick Shanley

Canadian premiere presented by the Fend Players Society.
Directed by Paul Crepeau.
At the Station Street Arts Centre until April 8th
930 Station Street, Vancouver, B.C.
Info: (604) 688-3312

Preview performance, March 20, 1995.
Review by Michael Brockington

Hollywood has been slapping live theatre around since forever, sucking audiences and talent into the film industry and snickering at anyone who doesn't sell out or buy in. Here in frozen Hollywood North (iced cappuccino, anyone?), the problem is particularly acute. Actors need to score that commercial or bit part in an American TV series to pay the bills, but live theatre is the only place to build their skills. Homegrown film might offer a decent part, but isn't likely to pay much. The resumés in the program for Four Dogs and a Bone demonstrate that these actors are well acquainted with the problem.

 Theatre is the parent of film and TV, but neither industry has gotten past that adolescent stage of hating Mom. When the movie producer in Four Dogs and a Bone wants to insult his female star, he calls her a "theatre actress"; the screenwriter gets downgraded to "playwright".

 Theatre fought back with the touring mega-musical, trying to out-spectacle the FX-mongers, with helicopters and swooping chandeliers and performances choreographed down to the last bead of sweat. It's a sad mistake, but an old one -- imitating the oppressor -- and it sacrifices the unique advantage of stage over film. Theatre is a living thing, close enough to touch but hard to capture because it grows from night to night, changing with the audience, changing with the living experience of the actors. The best Hollywood can come up with is a re-make. In the long run, franchise musicals can never hope to match film's capacity for spectacle; in the meantime their audience is in danger of forgetting what makes theatre important.

 Four Dogs and a Bone offers a more encouraging theatrical response, a malicious dissection of the movie industry without benefit of anesthetic. John Patrick Shanley is a credible observer, having worked as a screenwriter (Moonstruck) and film director (Joe versus the Volcano) besides being one of America's finer playwrights. Shanley still dwells in the belly of the beast, but he's managed to get a message to the outside world. And he's sent it out the long way -- not through the beast's mouth, but out its steaming rectum. 

This is not the first time Fend Players has premiered a Shanley play in Canada, and I wish them a long partnership. The results are always invigorating.

 Four dogs drive the play. Alec Willows plays Bradley, a producer so lacking in scruples he'll even tell the truth if it's likely to pay off. Thanks to a famous relative, Brenda (Jillian Fargey ) is a "personality" and wannabe star, acting in her first film and precocious enough to be sleeping with both the writer and the director. Collette (Nicola Cavendish) is Brenda in fast-forward, a six-time ingenue looking to avoid the long slide into character actor oblivion. Victor (Bill MacDonald) is the screenwriter, trying to jump up from theatre to the big time. 

Everyone wants changes to the script except the writer. Bradley's running out of cash and needs to cut scenes, while Brenda and Collette manoever to expand their own part at the expense of the other. Calling them Dogs puts them a bit higher on the food chain than seems justified. Victor is way out of his depth, struggling to cling to some shreds of integrity and humanity. We've seen this tale before, I think, but the joyful savagery in this comedy of corruption makes it a worthy reprise. Somebody wins, but everybody's screwed, and it's a moral we need to hear from time to time, an occasional antidote to the voodoo glamour of celebrity dreams and fan magazines. So you wanna be a star, kid? The first things you need are a dictionary of scatology and a moral lobotomy.

 Nicola Cavendish is something of a marvel. She has repressed self-consciousness, taste and even shame to go beyond the point of self-preservation, reaching for the summit of ugliness and absurdity Collette inhabits. Short and high-heeled, reeling like a sailor, stuffed into a dress that reveals all the wrong things, Collette runs on twin engines of self-interest and self-loathing. She is a living gargoyle -- irresistibly, utterly corrupt, like Little Orphan Annie gone porno. When she undertakes a seduction, it's done with the fury of a military offensive. Collette knows this film is her last chance -- not for redemption, no, but for degradation in a more rarefied sphere. Her fear is enough to allow us to connect with the character in a moment of compassion, but her anger never permits anything so cheap as sympathy.

 All these years they've told us that film, with its huge silver screen, is where people are larger than life. But Cavendish can get large on stage in a way that would never be credible on screen. She's larger than life without losing her connection to life.

 Victor, the writer, is the most human of the quartet -- which naturally puts him at a competitive disadvantage. Bill MacDonald gives a fine-tuned performance as a man savvy enough to know he's on the verge of losing his baby, but without the insight to realize he could be losing his soul. Victor is all edge and nuance, spooked but unwilling to bolt. His restraint works to best effect against Cavendish's ferocity, and the scene between the two of them is the high point of the production. It's a glorious scene, but does create a structural problem, as it occurs just before intermission and nothing in the second act can top it.

 The play is tightly structured, with two scenes in each act and a short intermission. The first scene pairs up Bradley with Brenda, the second matches Collette with Victor. Characterizations are firmly established and the break gives us a chance to anticipate the opposite pairing of characters in the second act. Having all four on-stage together provides a natural escalation for the resolution. Unfortunately the ending is diffused by the extra bodies, just when it should be most concentrated.

 On this particular night I found Alec Willows a little underpowered. Bradley is wound so tight he's externalized his angst as an ulcer on his ass "the size of a jumbo shrimp," but Willows doesn't manage to build to the level of desperation that deforms and elevates the other characters. If he can locate that urgency it may be all it takes to crank the final scene through the roof.

 The play whips by at high-speed, clocking in at something under 80 minutes. Shanley works out to the edge of farce before pulling back to genuine emotion, and sometimes the transition is rapid enough to whiplash both audience and actors. Victor had trouble gearing down fast enough at one point, but a preview is the place for working out bugs like this. The audience feeds its own energy into a performance and this was the actors' first opportunity to integrate that energy.

 Make no mistake. Four Dogs and a Bone may not be as meaty as some of Shanley's other work, but it sure ain't kibbles and bits. Director Paul Crepeau has mounted a fine production of a sharp-edged play. The second act needs some tinkering, but then that's the virtue of live theatre. It grows and changes, night to night. 

Who knows? It might even change you. 

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