Time and space are not givens in what could have been quite a good story, if not for a few too many dream sequences. If an audience has to question whether they are watching some scene in real time or in the protagonist’s REM sleep, they are bound to miss content. Melis Aker’s play HOUND DOG, (yes, all CAPS, as if the title is being screamed so loud it could divide the Bosphorus) is such a play.
Co-presenting companies Ars Nova and PlayCo would have done better to workshop the play a while longer. The clues to its unreadiness are in the written script with the lead character constantly referring to herself as “Me” and “I” in stage directions that perform the double duty of inner monologues – revealing nuances that are not translatable to the stage. These “notes to self” translate well to film, but dilute any essential character depth for a live audience.
From the moment we meet Hound Dog, she is adrift. Her moments on stage are all in direct response to the actions of the other characters. She initiates nothing. We know right away she has made the decision to return to Turkey because she was contacted by the Ankara police about her father’s self-destructive behavior. To do this she turns her back on a plum offer of a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London. Reality check – would someone who comes from such humble beginnings and an oppressive culture really turn down a golden opportunity to live her dream because of guilt? This is the same girl who only a year before went to the audition for this same school, rather than attend her own mother’s funeral.
Director Machel Ross does little to guide this play to any semblance of cohesion. Scenes 1 and 13, between Hound Dog and Ayse, her childhood best friend, begin with the exact same lines and stage blocking up to a point…so, did one scene happen and the other one not happen? Which is the real scene? Scene 6, between Hound Dog and Yusuf, the neighborhood trash collector and best friend to Hound Dog’s father Baba, happened three days after their meeting in Scene 4, or is it, as Hound Dog perceives, only yesterday?
Thankfully we are given some wonderful performances to while away the 90 minutes of not knowing where we are in this story. Olivia Abiassi may very well steal our hearts as Hound Dog’s childhood friend Ayse – her envy of Hound Dog’s lost opportunities is well placed. Now a lesbian in a very unforgiving culture, Ayse’s dreams of being in a girl band are shattered daily in a mindless job selling used refrigerators and washing machines. Abiassi later hilariously plays an American therapist at Harvard referencing textbook syndromes and a shallow British judicator at the Royal Academy audition. Jonathan Raviv as Yusuf gives a thoughtful performance of a struggling street musician resigned to being a trash collector. His friendship with Baba is honest and touching, finding in Baba a fellow spirit who modifies his dreams rather than obliterating them entirely. He later plays an aggressive and finally violent police officer.
Matt Magnusson as Mr. Callahan, Hound Dog’s former music teacher, has some of the tenderest moments in the play where though he is keenly aware of her schoolgirl crush on him, his ardent support of her music making and furthering her education comes to the fore. When he asks her opinion about a piece he has composed, and then confesses he wrote it for his recently deceased dog Doormat, he only adds to his charm. Later, even when his otherwise repressed jealousy of her opportunities does rear its ugly head, Magnusson reveals the very stifled struggle of a talented musician who never lived up to his full potential. Magnusson also later plays Professor Feliz, a priceless takeoff of a self-important Harvard musicology professor and a bookend to the other Royal Academy judicator.
Laith Nakli as Baba gives a truly heartbreaking performance as a husband and father who manifests his grief over losing his wife and failing in his ability to communicate with his daughter by immersing himself in revisiting a bad attempt at Elvis impersonation. A flashback sequence where he surprises the young teen Hound Dog with lunch from Burger King (the first in Ankara!), rather than the much hoped for tickets to see Elton John in Istanbul, is filled with pathos, particularly as they fight over who gets to wear the cardboard crown. Sadly, Ellena Eshraghi as Hound Dog bears the burden of a lead role that is not all it purports to be. The character’s choices are not grounded in anything substantial, so it is a Herculean effort just to get to the end of the play.
Set designer Frank J. Oliva’s two-level set of white plaster with multiple arched doorways and balconies creates the illusion of great depth. Tuçe Yasak’s lighting often supplies colorful effects, particularly in the Greyslent (Graceland) scene. Qween Jean’s costumes are spot-on, outdoing herself in the faux-Elvis jumpsuits for Baba. Original, yet unmemorable, music and lyrics written by Melis Aker & The Lazours are performed by an adept onstage band led by Sahar Milani, meant to suggest what Hound Dog’s and Ayse’s aspirations might have led to.
Studies in dramatic structure always propose that the true lead of a play is the character that has undergone the most change by the end. In the case of the play HOUND DOG it can be argued that honor would go to the character of Baba, as by the end of the play he has foregone being mired in grief and has become determined in embracing his role as a father. As it is Hound Dog’s return to Turkey that sets that change in motion, it would be interesting to revisit this play after rewrites to make Hound Dog more of a master of her own destiny.
HOUND DOG (through November 5, 2022)
Ars Nova & PlayCo
Ars Nova @ Greenwich House, 27 Barrow Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.ci.ovationtix.com
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission