Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review: Heil Puppy

What is offensive? It seems nowadays, no matter what you say or do, someone will be offended for one reason or another. Stemming back to World War II, there was a Finnish dog that apparently offended Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party following a picture where that dog appears to be mocking one of the most universally offensive gestures, the Nazi salute. Inspired by this fascinating story comes Mac Wellman’s flawless The Offending Gesture.
Performed at The Connelly presented by The Tank in association with 3-Legged Dog, The Offending Gesture is a satirical retelling of Jackie the dog and the picture that incited an investigation like no other. As Jackie is detained by Noble Wolf, which happens to be the meaning of Adolf, he meets Blondi, Noble Wolf’s loyal companion, who aids him on his journey to save Finland from the Nazis. All while a melodic symphony of Mooncats remark on their predicament. Mixing anthropomorphized dogs, a chorus of Mooncats, and an epic new take on the dictator himself, The Offending Gesture is setting the pace as one of the best productions of 2016. And it’s only the second week of the year. Wellman manages to take a dark time of world history and find light, all while managing to be poignant. To paint a picture of what this production is, imagine a twisted Tim Burton-Disney collaboration about World War II. The dialogue is snappy. The story is touching. The characters are relevant. All in all, The Offending Gesture is a remarkable feat of artistry and ingenuity. It’s political satire at its finest. It’s one of those pieces that you have to see to capture the full experience.
photo by Richard Termine 
There’s something magical about a cohesive ensemble. The Offending Gesture has just that. As a unit, this company is like a harmonious well-oiled machine. Leading the pack are the trio of Layla Khoshnoudi, Kristine Haruna Lee, and Abby Rosebrock. Layla Khoshnoudi gives a grand performance as Noble Wolf. There’s a familiarity in the character yet Khoshnoudi makes the role her own. Khoshnoudi has exquisite comic ability, blending physicality with a vocal dexterity. She even finds character within costume designer Emily Blumenauer’s costume. She truly is a transformative performer. Taking on the infamous dog, Kristine Haruna Lee finds honor and vigor within Jackie. Haruna Lee is a spitfire. Alongside Abby Rosebrock as Blondi, the duo manages to deliver an ambitiously layered performance. Never once do they falter. While Haruna Lee brings a more straight-laced characterization for Jackie, Rosebrock’s Blondi has some gruff. All thanks to her Californians-inspired dialect. These two are a powerful force on stage that captivate thanks to their bond. Music plays an integral role in this production. With a wall of beautifully eerie harmony, a mode is instantly evoked. The vocalists, comprised of Alaina Ferris, who also serves as the composer, Catherine Brookman, Starr Busby, Julia Sirna Frest, and Lacy Rose are the glue that holds the piece together.
It takes a vision to achieve success and Meghan Finn’s vision is remarkable. Finn easily transports the piece from page to stage. She incorporates a specific style that is carried through, remaining consistent. Rather than playing it safe, Finn takes the opportunity to feature theatrical staging while maintaining the integrity of the surreal. She takes the quirky nature of the story and highlights the heart and truth that Wellman intended. The Offending Gesture will certainly entertain you while subliminally allowing you to ponder life and the world, as we know it. The imagination can run wild when creating the world of this play. And it’s evident that scenic designers Christopher and Justin Swader had a vast imagination. Their design evoked a happy marriage of theatricality and ingenuity. You enter The Connelly and see a stunning red curtain within a vibrant gold proscenium, you can only imagine what’s behind. When the curtain is pulled back, the floor to ceiling walls of hardwood shelving, each containing a folder, is evocative. Their set allows infinite opportunity for lighting designer Brain Aldous. And what wonders he created. Aldous incorporated a mix of shadows and darkness to create some noir-esque images. His use of footlights creates some grand images. As messaged previously, the costume design by Emily Blumenauer elevated the characters. Each costume worked for the character. Between the high-waisted pantsuits to the specificity of color, her design is smart. Reverberation and the use of microphones played a heavy part in this production. Eric Sluyter called attention to the necessity of volume that impacted the storytelling of The Offending Gesture. Meghan Finn compiled a team of brilliant designers to create a unified design.
The Offending Gesture is something worth experiencing. Even if you’re not someone who gets excited by experimental work, this production proves anything can happen on stage that can excite emotion.

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