Dread, terror, and paranoia run rampant through our society these days, the newspapers tell us, promulgated by the forces of war and an ever-growing culture of fear. Ostensibly written in response (and protest) to the Vietnam War, Walter Wangerin, Jr.'s prescient novel The Book of the Dun Cow is an antiwar diatribe that also parallels the current war in Iraq. Randy Courts and Mark St. Germain have adapted Wangerin's material into the most unlikely of forms—a musical—with quite thrilling results. In this haunting and cerebral production by the Prospect Theater Company, The Book of the Dun Cow examines existential questions of war, its motivations, and the responses it generates.
And did I mention that the protagonists are animals?
Welcome to an alternative universe where animals are the keepers of the earth, presided over by the gregarious and slightly pompous rooster Chauntecleer. When a neighboring ruler, Senex, decides to produce an heir, he unwittingly brings forth Cockatrice and the evil of the underworld (Wyrm). As animals begin to die, Chauntecleer must make difficult decisions about war and its consequences.
Although you might be tempted to interpret the show (the first act, at least) as an allegorical tale that predicts the coming of the Dun Cow (a savior figure of sorts), Wangerin's story pushes beyond the simple assignation of roles to a more complex narrative. As a result, characters are rich and multidimensional, but the story itself is so densely written that it is often difficult to tease out a clear sense of what has actually taken place (and why).
But in a story chronicling war, you might argue, this ambiguity is so much the better. War is, after all, cloaked in mystery; as Chauntecleer's wife (the hen Pertelote) queries, in the darkness of battle, "Who can tell who's right?"
Director Cara Reichel has created a thoroughly believable world for her characters, paying careful attention to the inherent power of storytelling. When the Narrator (Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum) takes the stage, he carefully opens a book. The animals file on wordlessly, giving the Narrator their undivided attention. As he begins the story, the characters come to life to act out the tale.
And although the Narrator somewhat perplexingly closes the book before the show ends, this too seems a conscience choice. "Is this the moment when the animals' story becomes our story?" wondered the friend who accompanied me. We weren't able to come up with a definitive answer, but the debate that ensued over this and other plot points indicated that The Book of the Dun Cow is replete with questions—imperative ones worth thinking about.
Courts and St. Germain's sophisticated, contemporary score, buttressed by percussion and guitar, has a sound all its own, full of lavish harmonies and evocative melodies. Marcus Baker leads an accomplished orchestra through the fine orchestrations provided by Courts and Daniel Feyer.
Portraying an animal can be a risky endeavor for an actor (the risk of embarrassment certainly runs high), but—thanks in part to David Withrow's intriguing and resourceful costume design—the performers are fully believable in their anthropomorphic state. Rather than attempting to realistically "transform" the actors into animals, Withrow merely suggests their animalistic traits. Boots, corsets, and vests form the standard uniform; a red scarf suggests a rooster's wobble, while the dog Mundo Cani sports a canine-channeling droopy hat. Hand puppets add another innovative touch.
Similarly, the performers, with a few exceptions, do not overplay their animal affectations, wisely opting for more subtle mannerisms. As a whole, this is a fierce ensemble of actors, wholly dedicated to their task. As the sparring roosters Cockatrice and Chauntecleer, Micah Bucey and Brian Munn dominate the proceedings with powerful, captivating performances. Vanessa June Marshall brings delicate sensitivity and a crystal voice to Pertelote, and David Foley Jr. offers a tender and mighty-voiced performance as Mundo Cani.
Paulo Seixas has provided an appealing multilevel set for the actors, but unfortunately Jessica Hendricks's choreography often fails to take full advantage of it. After exhilarating battle scenes and affecting group montages, the simplistic choreography in many of the full-ensemble songs often undermines its intricate accompaniment. This cast and this story, in other words, deserve more than a simple "step, touch, repeat" routine.
Why do we fight, and what do we hope to accomplish? What can we ever accomplish? Like the recent film Munich, The Book of the Dun Cow argues that even as we work to stamp out evil, it will always find a way to regenerate itself. Although the musical very nearly collapses under the weighty questions it poses, it is an intriguing inquiry into fundamental questions. When confronted with evil, do we resist violence, Chauntecleer asks, or do we "become a rat to kill a rat"?