“Shakespeare’s Dog” is a tale (tail) worth telling that gives pause (paws) for thought, despite its comic approach and bawdiness. Playwright Rick Chafe gives this canine view of Elizabethan England poignancy as well as humor in his stage adaptation of Leon Rooke’s 25-year-old comic novel of the same name. The dramatized version’s world premiere emphasizes the brutality of the Elizabethan Age toward humans and animals — particularly dogs, from whose perspective the story is told.
Title character and narrator Hooker (Arne MacPherson) sniffs along the trail of events that took young William Shakespeare to London and opened the playwright’s way to immortality. While others have suggested that a poor glover’s son must have had help to write as he did, no one else has offered the witty premise that the Bard’s muse was his mutt.
As told by Chafe, adhering closely to the novel, the theory seems quite reasonable.
Under director Larry DesRochers, the play moves at lightning speed from encounters among randy dogs that reflect the human desires of Anne Hathaway (Helen Taylor) and Will (Harry Judge), to domestic squabbles in the Shakespeare family and plans for producing a play at the local tavern.
Following every twist and turn of the book’s dense text and complex plotline (a perennial problem in adapting a novel to the stage) requires the determination of a pit bull. In terms of helping the flow, the script would benefit from selective pruning. The character of Will’s sister, Joan Shakespeare (Daria Puttaert), for example, adds little and could easily be eliminated.
In general, however, “Shakespeare’s Dog” is a highly effective drama that presents the atmosphere of the period in an unexpected way. The production also is visually attractive, with Brian Perchaluk’s set suggesting Shakespeare’s legendary Globe Theater.
The dog characters — on two legs when there are no humans onstage and all fours when they share the space with the “two-foots” — are funny and ribald. Cleverly costumed by Perchaluk with tails to blend with outfits and hair, every dog has a moment in the sun.
Hooker (in a carefully crafted performance from MacPherson that avoids cuteness) is joined by a panting poodle, a raunchy mongrel, a fighting hound and a wise old dog.
The human characters draw much of their humor from oblique references to the Bard’s plays in such lines as “What’s in a name?,” a Will-and-Anne version of the “Romeo and Juliet” balcony scene or a reference to the gravedigger’s scene from “Hamlet.”
Several fine performances add to the fun, particularly from David Warburton, whose precise comic timing as the publican is a delight. Paws up on this play.