Acting is all about choices. What do the characters want? How do they resolve to get it? When confronted with a number of options, what decision do they make? In improvisation, actors strive to make bold and immediate choices. Consequently, when Dan Safer, artistic director of the avant-garde, improv-heavy theatre troupe Witness Relocation decided to base a new work on Behavioral Choice Theatre, the resulting work, Vicious Dogs on Premises, cuts to the essence of theatre. In this examination of life in a dystopian land of doglike humans, Witness Relocation examines the relationship of choice to oppression, freedom, fear and happiness. An episodic work, Vicious Dogs consists of a number of vignettes and improvs divided by the ringing of a bell, like a horrific combination of boxing match—or perhaps dogfight?—and game show. Scenes scripted by Innovative Theatre Award-winning playwright Saviana Stanescu give the work structure and momentum, while the unscripted parts are closely tied to the scenes’s themes.
The casting of the show's four performers in the various etudes and scenes, and the order in which they are presented, are determined at random at the beginning of each performance. This allows as many combinations of the play's parts as hands dealt from a scrupulously shuffled deck of playing cards. Each night, the actors, devoid of choice, play the hand they are dealt. So too, Witness Relocation suggests, do many people outside the playhouse. In an oppressive state, people have no choices, but are certainly not free and often not happy. The question this juxtaposition raises is broad and frightening: do we want to have a choice, about anything? Does it take courage to demand to have choices, or maturity to make them?
Across the board, the performers an co-choreographers (Heather Christian, Sean Donovan, Mike Mikos and Laura Berlin Stinger—are agile dancers. When playing dogs, they are eerily doglike. In one scene, each of the four mimetically transforms into a different sort of dog, ranging in facial expression and movement from the fanatical rambunctiousness of a retriever to the bared-teeth, leash-straining grimace of a more menacing canine. They work well as an ensemble: no individual performer dominates the piece, and a scene in which a majority of three interrogate the odd one out shows the trio operating as if with one mind.
Kaz Phillips’s video art, on screens set in the upstage wall is somewhat less vital. The image of a bare lightbulb in the interrogation scene is clever but hardly unexpected or shocking. Anatomical drawings of the insides of dogs add nothing to the dialogue and dance, and sometimes distract the viewer from the live performance.
Sometimes the topicality seems a bit strained. According to the press release, the plight of Michael Vicks's abused dogs, “trained to fight” and therefore permanently unsocializable, inspired Safer “to muse on how much people, too, can heal after they are tortured in their own lives.” One of the improv scenes consists of a woman reporting on the latest vapid news gleaned from surveillance of celebrities. Whatever violation of privacy "Amy Winehouse" has endured lately, it seems, is not exactly torture. In the scripted scenes, “torture” ranges from the genuinely horrific (Abu Ghraib) to the “torture” of having loved and lost in a cynical urban dating scene dominated by computers. Stanescu's tongue-in-cheek depiction of the latter situation keeps things in perspective.
In Vicious Dogs, Stanescu and company make trenchant observations about our dog-eat-dog world in sharply visual, kinetic ways.