Brownstein: It's a dog's world at the Segal Centre

Based on André Alexis’s Giller Prize-winning novel, the crowd-pleasing Fifteen Dogs explores what would transpire if canines were given human consciousness, and whether they would be worse off.

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Who let the dogs in?

Who, who?

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Segal Centre artistic and executive director Lisa Rubin, that’s who.

After catching the show’s original Toronto production, Rubin takes full responsibility and has absolutely no regrets about bringing Fifteen Dogs — on all 60 paws — to the Segal Centre, where the play has its official Montreal debut Thursday and runs until April 21.

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But fret not, audiences with fears of canines or allergies: Six humans play the 15 pooches, doing their best barking, butt-wiggling, licking, dumpster-diving and four-paw impressions.

Based on André Alexis’s Giller Prize-winning novel and adapted and directed by Marie Farsi, this mind-bending tale operates with the premise of what transpires when dogs are endowed with human consciousness and speaking skills. And are they better off as a consequence?

The initial reaction of lifelong canine owners such as myself before seeing the play could well be: Grrr — let them be devoid of some of the more inhumane aspects of humanity, and let them continue to frolic mindlessly.

But based on a preview of the play this week, audiences may well get blown away by the transformation, whether or not they’re dog owners.

At a time when we are inundated with so much material for the stage and screen that is utterly derivative, it is refreshing to catch something so audaciously original, thought-provoking and touching, albeit most challenging.

A woman leans on a concrete slab and makes a hand gesture over the head of a man resting his arms and head on the concrete.
Lucinda Davis and Oliver Dennis star in Fifteen Dogs at the Segal Centre. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

The play begins with a bet between Greek gods Hermes and Apollo as to whether dogs would die happier were they to have human values. A stretch though that bet may come across, the piece quickly settles into relationships forged and the complex bond shared by hounds and humans. Even Freud may have been left scratching his head, among other body parts.

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This is not the first time the Segal Centre has gone to the dogs. On a completely non-metaphorical level, the theatre played host to the species in 2021 with a production of SuperDogs: The Musical, wherein 24 actual hounds pranced about the stage howling and performing all manner of stunts.

Suffice it to say Fifteen Dogs is positively Shakespearean by contrast.

“On a very personal note, I only got my first dog a few years back,” Rubin says while taking in a Fifteen Dogs rehearsal. “I didn’t get the whole dog thing before. Now I do.

“My job is not only to look at what’s happening in our city. I look at what’s happening in New York and in the rest of Canada. I also want to find great Canadian plays, and everyone was talking about Fifteen Dogs in Toronto. So I went to see it, and it slowly washes over you. Then I’m going: ‘Is this just because I have a dog now?’”

Perhaps, but Rubin checked with people who don’t have dogs, and they were equally struck by the play. So she decided to bring it here.

“There was so much to think about, regarding the athleticism of the actors who have to play gods, humans and dogs and all the emotions involved. It takes a lot to move me, and taking in the play was one of the great experiences I’ve had. So I was very excited to say I’d try it. We’ve staged a lot of crowd-pleasers, but this is a crowd-pleaser on another level,” says Rubin, noting the production has been further developed beyond its Toronto staging.

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“There’s going to be an audience for it. And there’s going to be an audience not for it. But it will be interesting.”

Three people talk on a stage next to a couch, grass and rocks.
Director Marie Farsi, left, chats with actors Oliver Dennis and Amy Rutherford during a rehearsal of the Segal Centre’s production of Fifteen Dogs. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

Fifteen Dogs certainly benefits from having original Toronto director and adapter Farsi at the helm here. Apart from being a dog owner, it’s no big mystery as to what drew Farsi to this project.

“I am the kind of director who likes the impossible tasks, and I felt something inherently theatrical in trying to bring Greek gods, dogs and humans on stage together. So I made it even harder by giving myself the challenge of doing it with only six actors. The element of transformation was also really key to make this work dramatically,” Farsi says during a brief rehearsal break.

“To me, the book on which it is based is really an ode to human imagination. That really drew me. Human imagination is saving us from the suffering and pain that comes with life, and that’s something I really wanted to celebrate on stage. And I’m asking the audience to imagine, too. I think we see ourselves better and with more clarity through animals.”

A woman reads a book while leaning against a reclining man on a theatre stage, with a rock in the background.
Oliver Dennis and Amy Rutherford rehearse Fifteen Dogs, which officially opens Thursday, April 4 at the Segal Centre. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

Oliver Dennis has no quibbles with Farsi’s views. The veteran Toronto actor masterfully plays the pivotal part of a sage poodle named Majnoun, among other pooches and some humans. The unshakable bond formed between Majnoun and his human partner, Nira (Amy Rutherford), is so heartfelt that it’s easy to forget they represent different species.

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This is not the first time Dennis has played a dog on stage in his 40-year acting career. Many years back, he played a greyhound in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and last winter he was cast in the role of Herr Hund — another hound — in an adaptation of the Grimms’ fairy tale The Town Musicians of Bremen.

“Fortunately, I’m accustomed to doing a lot of physical acting, but as I get older it’s getting a little bit harder. So far, so good, but I’m a little bit bony, so my knees are getting a workout,” attests Dennis, who previously appeared — upright — in such Segal Centre productions as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Importance of Being Earnest.

The experience of playing a pooch may not be novel for Dennis, but it takes on an entirely different dimension here.

“I’m a human playing a dog with the consciousness of a human,” says dog lover Dennis. “But to quote Hermes, maybe we’d all be better off if they gave dog consciousness to humans.”

No doubt.

AT A GLANCE

Fifteen Dogs continues through April 21 at the Segal Centre, 5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine Rd. Call 514-739-7944 or visit segalcentre.org.

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