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Red Dog Howls
By Elyse Sommer
Though the characters in Red Dog Howls are fictional, their story unfurls the history of the still largely unknown 1915 Armenian genocide. It began with a dictator led Turkish government massacring Armenian leaders and then using rape, death marches, murder and various other means of torture to wipe out the Armenian populace.
Since books, films and plays giving voice to unspoken memories of such shocking events have not prevented other such horrors from adding dark chapters to our history, books, it is more important than ever not to let them be forgotten. Mr. Dinelaris is therefore to be commended for using his talents to bear witness to the Armenian massacre[ — not only on its immediate victims but its long-term effect on those who lived but remained burdened by painful memories, feelings of anger, displacement and guilt.
Red Dog Howls has gone through a lengthy developmental process which has cut the original 2 hours with intermission run time to a trim 90 minutes. Despite the changes and the continued presence of Kathleen Chalfant as the remarkably youthful 91-year-old pivotal character, this is still a case of momentous real-life events upstaging the plot developments the playwright has devised to lead into his play's emotionally draining finale.
As she was in the central role in the Pulitzer Prize winning Wit, Chalfant is riveting as the crusty nonogenarian. She allows Rose to be funny, yet without ever relinquishing the aura of a woman with a devastating secret that can only be revealed in bits and pieces. She is also given solid support from Alfredo Narcisco as Michael, the play's troubled narrator and the grandson whose father's death have deepened his sense of being incomplete without finding the missing pieces in his puzzling family history.
It's a packet of letters that Michael discovers when going through his father's belongings that send him to the heretofore unknown grandmother's Washington Heights apartment. The meetings that follow gradually lead to Rose's inevitably revealed agonizing secret, and Michael's equally agonizing (and more than a little troublesome) act of closure.
To add to the pluses of the two lead performers acting, there's Ken Rus Schmoll's smartly paced direction, Florencia Lozano's does her best with the relatively thankless role of Michael's pregnant wife Gabriella. The production is well served with Marsha Ginsberg's all-in-one multiple location set, Tyler Micoleau's mood enhancing lighting and Jane Shaw's evocative incidental music
The problem with this history based story as a play is that the humorous interchanges between Rose and Michael, the business about the Armenian style meals she insists on preparing for him come off as forced devices rather than organic developments. Not that these leavening touches aren't needed to ease us into the sure-fire double hankie climax. However, there's too much foreshadowing that predictably points to the unimaginably awful revelation to come —. especially grandma's repeatedly urging Michael which she underscores by challenging him to an arm wrestling match. Then there's the food business which, besides also being loaded with omens, isn't as naturally integrated as it was in last season's terrific Food and Fadwa , also at New York Theatre Workshop.
Michael's narrative segments do serve to connect his relationship with Rose and his wife, but even in the current streamlined production, these monologues tend to feel long, too talky and self-consciously poetic. Michael's marital problems do make this a bit more of a family drama than one that enlists the extreme suffering of a single fictional character (Rose) as the symbol of a mass tragedy. However, this worked better in Leslie Ayvazian's Nine Armenians (MTC 1998) which also featured Kathleen Chalfant. She gave an as usual exceptional performance as the matriarch in that serious but also entertaining drama about a close-knit Armenian family haunted by the genocide. But that play wasn't just Chalfant's party while Red Dog Howls relies on one character to propel the plot and stir your emotions. It's hard to imagine it without Chalfant to engage you with her spot-on accent, and wry humor and ultimately bring tears to your eyes.
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