Know Dog

Local Arts Reviews

Know Dog

The Off Center, through June 26

Running Time: 1 hr, 5 min

A boy is looking at his older brother, who's looking at his aunt, who's looking at her husband's dog, which is represented by us, the audience, and we're looking back at all of them. That moment captures something of the essence of Kathryn Walat's Know Dog, in which each character seeks the attention of another, who doesn't supply it because he or she is too busy seeking the attention of someone else, and this circle of unrequited desire forms a chain that threatens to choke these figures like links tightening around an angry dog's throat.

The boy is Johnny, a 9-year-old who is hungry for the notice of his big brother Hank, but Hank is distracted by Alice, the wife of his uncle Matthew, who's never around the dusty yard and weathered cottage they call home and has all but abandoned her. That eats at Alice like a swarm of fleas, and since the man himself isn't there, she fixates on his hound, Stanley, whose constant silent presence allows her to project all her deep-seated resentment, fears, and desires onto his furry form. She goes from hating him to loving him to imagining him the fanged savior who will rip out his master's throat and deliver her from this life of never-ending loneliness. All the while, there stands Hank, helping her with the wash-line, sharing sodas with her, ready to do anything for her if she would only see him.

Walat has penned a tale of quiet desperation in a beat-up little world that in Salvage Vanguard Theater's world premiere staging should be awfully familiar to anyone who's spent time in South Austin. (Chase Staggs' set has the peeling paint, drought-caked earth, and weeds of a thousand low-rent domiciles in 78704.) But as it unfolds, the tale itself has a familiar ring as well: people stuck in a cul-de-sac of life who yearn for something or someone they think can set them free. Once it becomes clear that these characters don't see one another's longing gazes and that the progression of Alice's one-sided relationship with Stanley is set, the dramatic tension in Know Dog evaporates like a mist in the play's pitiless summer sun, and it's pretty much just a matter of watching it play out.

Of course, just knowing where a story is headed doesn't mean it can't grip you on the way there. Director Jason Neulander and company craft a world in which we can feel the dry, draining heat and dead-end disappointment that's just as thick and life-sapping. Aaron Alexander's quiet Hank always seems to be reaching toward Deanna Shoemaker's Alice, even when his arms are at his side, and he slyly reveals the toll her indifference takes on him in his melancholy nods toward the light booth to signal a change of scene. Shoemaker – who has to convey the greatest range of feelings, make numerous pointed references to the Huns and their domestication of canines, and convince us of her passion for a dog – works hard at realizing Alice on all levels and in all moods. She gives us a sense of the character's dissatisfaction and distraction and even her delusion, but the desperation that seems lodged in the heart of Alice, driving her to this kind of madness, doesn't quite come across.

It's like when late in the play, the generally silent Stanley begins to howl. In this production, a recording of howling is played, but it doesn't sound authentic. It doesn't have that haunting quality we know from recordings of wolves, that sound of profound longing or loneliness. Know Dog is a story of that sound, and that sound is missing in its telling here.

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Know Dog, Kathryn Walat, Salvage Vanguard Theater, Chase Staggs, Jason Neulander, Aaron Alexander, Deanna Shoemaker

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