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Arts and Entertainment

'D Is For Dog' Succeeds As Impressive Dark Comedy/Drama

Michael Scott Allen, Guy Birtwhistle and Taylor Coffman in "D Is For Dog." Photo - Kris Bicknell
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Rogue Artists Ensemble has developed a reputation for wildly creative shows using multimedia, puppets and whatever theatre tools will help to realize their particular visions. Previous works such as Mr. Punch or Gogol Project were impressive in multiple ways, but what seemed to stand out most was the visual spectacle, the sheer creative invention on display. The group’s current production, D Is For Dog, retains the striking design elements the Rogues are known for but has pared down the amount. This show focuses instead on a deceptively simple story and a terrific cast, delivering a sci-fi black comedy that ultimately sucker punches the audience in the heart.

The Rogers family seems to live in a idealized 1950s sitcom, punctuated with regular product placement. Mrs. Rogers (Nina Silver) swans about her kitchen each morning in a near ballet of cleaning and cooking, ready to serve that perfect cup of coffee to Mr. Rogers (Guy Birtwhistle) before he heads off to his job at the Conservation Corporation. Then young preteen Dick (Michael Scott Allen) and his younger sister Jane (Taylor Coffman) troop in, and the family all takes clear pills to start the day. Everything is perfect, except that Mom needs to regularly take blue pills to soothe some hidden pain, and Jane sometimes falls into laughing jags that immediately require yellow pills. Dad knows more than he’s telling, but soon all secrets will be revealed.

Birtwhistle plays his role more like the harried George Jetson than Mr. Rogers’ calmer namesake, but he brings a believable sense of compassion and finally anxiety as the Dad on the go who’s outmatched by his situation. Allen does a good job as Dick, parading around with boyish self-importance and trying to be the man around the house for his mother, becoming ever more perplexed as things he notices don’t make sense. Silver excels as Mrs. Rogers, her “marvelous” life gradually becoming unraveled, showing the character’s weariness and eventual despair in a moving performance. Coffman steals the show, however, as the guileless Jane, very funny in moments where she adds her own chorus of “Jane!” to any situation, but most memorable in the scene where she discerns the horror right below the surface of the Rogers family’s life and just starts screaming.

Director Sean T. Cawelti uses set, lighting, music, sound, puppetry, CG and video deftly, creating a convincing world, but his work with the actors is so good the show could almost be as effective on an empty stage. Katie Polebaum’s play provides a credible reason for the story’s mysteries, but it succeeds mainly as a picture of a family struggling to exist in difficult circumstances. Her blue-and white kitchen set is simple yet evokes the idea of a Fifties dream house, supported by John Nobori and Ben Phelps’ appropriately chirpy original music. Haylee Freeman’s lighting works particularly well in transitioning scenes where everything glows red and the video images turn fluorescent, as if everything is being fried with sinister energy. Finally, the video played in the “kitchen window,” designed by Cawelti, Muhammed Saleh and Matthew J. Hill, provides one of the show’s most impressive moments, as reality literally begins to fragment before our eyes.

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D Is For Dog runs through Aug. 7. Tickets are $15-20 and are available online or at (213) 596-9468.