Friday, June 06, 2008

Play Bawl

Tuesday night I went to the El Portal Theater in North Hollywood to see a play that left me so emotionally shaken I've procrastinated until now to write about it. My emotions are so strong about this story it's hard for me to think about it -- yet I can't stop thinking about it.

"Red Dog Howls" is simply one of the most searing plays I've ever seen in my life. (And I've seen a few.)

It tells a story that is heartbreaking, shocking, unimaginable and completely believable.

It's a little surprising to learn this gut-wrenching play is written by Alexander Dinelaris who also wrote the book and lyrics for the light and playful "ZannaDon't!"

The show is about a young man who, upon his father's death, learns his grandmother who he long thought was dead has actually lived but a few miles away from him in New York City. And it turns out that's not the only secret his family has.

He finds her and after he gains her trust she tells him a story of unthinkable tragedy (and survival) from the Armenian Genocide.

Kathleen Chalfant plays the grandmother and creates a character on stage who is absolutely convincing. Many of the audience members were older Armenians and you could hear them reacting to words and phrases in Armenian before they were explained to English-only speaking members of the audience. Same thing as the Grandmother's cooking was described, the audience reacted with nostalgia to some of the old Armenian dishes.

This play isn't the first time Chalfant has left me emotionally devastated. I first saw her perform in the early 90s at the Mark Taper Forum in the pre-Broadway run on "Angels in America." Chalfant played multiple roles including the simple Utah mother lost in New York City as she seeks the Mormon Visitors' Center while looking for her son and, in a very cathartic scene, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg who comes to sing at the deathbed of Roy Cohn.

The second time Chalfant destroyed me (emotionally) was as the terminal cancer patient in "Wit."

Chalfant has the goods and she delivers big time in "Red Dog Howls."

The play's ending is so tragic (and moving) the audience filed out of the auditorium in near silence. A level of quiet I don't remember ever hearing in a theater audience.

I wonder if this play's commercial success will be limited because the material is so dark. Play writing and acting doesn't get any better than this.
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