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review

Mirabella Sundar Singh, Laura Condlln and Peter Fernandes in Fifteen Dogs.DAHLIA KATZ/Crow's Theatre

  • Title: Fifteen Dogs
  • Written and directed by: Marie Farsi, based on the novel Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis
  • Genre: Play
  • Actors: Laura Condlln, Peter Fernandes, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Tom Rooney, Tyrone Savage, Mirabella Sundar Singh
  • Company: Crow’s Theatre
  • Venue: Guloien Theatre at Crow’s Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Sunday, Feb. 12, 2023

Critic’s pick


Watching six actors pretend to be dogs for two hours and 45 minutes (including intermission) might seem like one painfully long acting exercise. But in director Marie Farsi’s capable paws, it’s anything but.

The talented artist who brought such haunting intensity to Crow’s Theatre’s production of Ghost Quartet four years ago has adapted – for the same company – André Alexis’s 2015 Giller Prize-winning novel Fifteen Dogs with whimsy, imagination and profundity. Sure, there’s lots of woofing and barking and the occasional sniffing of a tempting crotch. But there are just as many insights into what it means to be human.

Like Alexis’s novel, the play begins with a brilliant premise. After taking in some modern libations at Toronto’s Wheatsheaf Tavern, the gods Apollo (Tyrone Savage) and Hermes (Mirabella Sundar Singh) are discussing the sad, unhappy mortals around them when they wonder what it would be like if animals were granted human intelligence.

Would any of these furry creatures die happy? The jaded Apollo thinks they would be even more miserable than their two-legged counterparts. Hermes is more optimistic. So finding themselves outside a veterinary clinic at King and Shaw Streets, they grant human consciousness to the canines inside and make a bet. If even one dog dies happy, Hermes will win and Apollo will have to serve him for one human year. If they all die unhappy, Hermes will do his half-brother’s bidding.

And so begins an epic tale – a Dogyssey, if you will – of a dozen canines as they figure out how to open their cages, leave the clinic (several decide to stay) and roam everywhere from High Park to the Beach looking for food, shelter and … something more. Creative fulfilment? Love? For what, Alexis makes us wonder, contributes to human happiness?

One big difference between the book and play is that Farsi has added a brief prologue to the show, a sort of Homeric invocation to the gods. This cleverly hearkens back to the oral tradition of the epic poem and it also sets up the show’s structure, in which all six actors take turns narrating the story.

The production is a little disorienting at first. There are, after all, 15 dogs and only half a dozen actors. In the novel, Alexis provides a “dramatis canes” detailing the names, breeds and characteristics of the various dogs. But Farsi has come up with a handy visual equivalent. On a stainless steel table, the kind you might find at a vet’s clinic, she’s provided miniature figurines of each animal. Actors then transfer these to a humble rock, one of many that dot Julie Fox’s spare but evocative set evoking urban life from a dog’s perspective (a fire hydrant, patches of grass, a few telephone polls). And as each animal meets its end, its corresponding figurine is quietly spirited away.

As the dogs fight among themselves and their numbers dwindle, a few come into clearer focus. Majnoun (Tom Rooney), for instance, is a black poodle who gets taken in by a hipster literary couple. Atticus (Savage) is a gruff Neapolitan Mastiff who’s eager to establish his dominance. The gangly mutt Prince (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff) discovers he’s a poet, and either enchants or bores friends with his recitations – Alexis’s obvious in-joke about how modern poetry gets no respect. And Benjy (Peter Fernandes) reveals himself to be a resourceful, somewhat sneaky beagle.

Stephen Jackman-Torkoff.DAHLIA KATZ/Crow's Theatre

Tom Rooney and Peter Fernandes.DAHLIA KATZ/Crows theatre

Fox has wisely chosen not to make the actors prance around in furry costumes – this is not Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Dogs. Rooney’s black poodle, for instance, wears a trim black jacket, a turtleneck and dark jeans. And when he’s Atticus, Savage dons a ratty grey cowl that suggests his cascading jowls.

But it’s the actors’ skill, of course, that makes their characters – whether canine, human or immortal (besides Hermes and Apollo, their dad Zeus makes a couple of outrageous appearances) – so vivid.

Fernandes brings an infectious, lovable quality to Benjy; his high-energy account of how he survived years on the street is one of the play’s highlights. Jackman-Torkoff plays his poetic Prince like a brilliant jazz artist, occasionally singing his dialogue – underscored by David Mesiha’s inspired music and sound design – as if mere spoken words won’t suffice.

The most moving performance comes from Rooney, whose inquisitive, intelligent Majnoun forms an unbreakable bond with his human owner Nira (a sympathetic Laura Condlln) that makes him question the foundation of his existence.

Could the script be a little shorter? Sure. But it wouldn’t have the same impact. As with any epic tale, you need all those episodes to suggest the full range of human experience. And this play delivers one doggone spectacular tale.

Fifteen Dogs continues to Feb. 12. (crowstheatre.com)