If I were as old as I am in dog years, I’d be dead. That’s a trite realization, but it’s also a direct appreciation of mortality, and directly appreciating mortality is one of the core goals of Dead Dog’s Bone, the current production of FaultLine Theater. Written by Veronica Tjioe and staged now for maybe the second time, by director Emma Nicholls, Dead Dog’s Bone follows a loose-knit family for 90 minutes as they whip in between the present and the past along a malleable timeline, confronting old faults and buried trauma and revisiting seams that never could quite seal right. Like picking at a scab, the characters can’t resist the human urge to interrogate a weak spot, always hoping that the next scratch will reveal comforting bedrock instead of furthering the rent in the fabric, but of course it doesn’t. The bonds just slowly wear against the rough spot of time until they sever. And meanwhile, in the background, someone’s dog is slowly dying for 90 minutes. Or, rather, 16 years…if we’re counting in Dog time.
Juniper (Noelle Viñas) is 23, and the play opens with her abruptly exiting her apartment or dorm or house or condo or whatever it is, leaving behind her boyfriend, Tim (Andrew Chung), and her companion since age 7, Dog (Samanta Cubias). Juniper’s farewell love letter is, charitably, sub-Shakespearean and scrawled in chalk on the back wall: “Sorry, I had to leave,” with the latter half underlined to provide the emphasis that would have otherwise required a few thousand words of context or maybe the next 88 minutes of theater. Tim then enters to find Juniper vanished and one loving-but-elderly canine left to his care. Not for the last time, the forbearing southpaw Romeo dons his left-handed guitar and sings his sad state out into the void. Chung’s guitar provides a well-executed live backing track to a fair amount of the play, and he deftly and consistently plays well below his skill level, allowing the acting to sit on top of the music and preventing the whole affair from becoming an attention-dominating gimmick.
But you don’t have time to fully appreciate that, as the phone rings, and Tim receives a cryptic one-sided phone call with seemingly ominous news. It’s not stated immediately, but the name of the play helps you intuit that it is the family vet calling: Dog is in trouble, and Dog will soon be on his way. And thus start the gears of time. Dog, played wholeheartedly by Samanta Cubias, is a preternaturally-sentient, anthropomorphic family pet who is about to have a birthday and, apparently, also a burial. Tim must deal with this, and it’s not only his girlfriend’s beloved dog, on his girlfriend’s beloved dog’s birthday, but it’s additionally about to be Christmas.
It turns out that this crushing nexus of sentimentality is actually what has caused Juniper to flee, and through the judicious use of flashback vignettes, we begin to pull together fragments of her childhood. Her father, Atlas (Scott Van de Mark), is a salt-of-the-earth, flannel-wearing man of the sea who “smells like Christmas” in all the right ways to have made her mother, Iris (Teri Whipple), force down her nomadic tendencies long enough to start a family and attempt a settled life. After the second or third flashback with Atlas pleading “talk to me” and Iris sadly asking if he misses the land while he’s on the water (“Sure I do. It has…agriculture…and uh…lakes…and…uh…our house”), it becomes apparent that Juniper saw her mom leave at some point.
Over fishing rods and kisses on the top of the head, it also becomes clear that Juniper spends Christmas with her dad. Yet when she returns this year, she finds a cheap real estate sign pegged into the yard, and she explodes upon entering the house. Her father’s non-aquatic skill set includes making bread and…well, we never hear what else, but true to form, he’s working the gluten when she barrels in. With downcast eyes, he apologetically explains that he can’t afford the place anymore (he “kneads the dough,” get it), and Juniper enters a tailspin. She worries that someone will buy it and change it, change the yard and the trimmings and the paint, make it a ghoulish, garish likeness of its former self. At one point, she has a vision of herself carrying innumerable old keys because keeping them at least means there’s a chance she “might still belong there.” This visceral longing, and its kissing-cousins of disgust and contempt at change, resonated deeply with me and reminded me of things I have felt before. Places we live come to feel like organic parts of ourselves and our lives; the thought of strangers inhabiting or, worse, owning them is grotesquely anathema, like somebody digging up our dead relatives and claiming them as their own. I think this is never more true than for childhood homes. I will always remember my teenage friend Chris seeing his ex-home for the first time, painted an even light-brown and ringed by new professional landscaping: “Those fucking shitheads; this shit is so ugly. I can’t believe they did this…fuckers.” It looked fine, objectively, but that was completely irrelevant and, to Chris, impossible and untrue.
Dead Dog’s Bone deals throughout with the themes of loss and of preparing to let go. Dog is the linchpin of most of these scenes, providing a foil and anchor for each character in turn and in pairs or, occasionally, threes to confront their insecurities and to deal with each other, exploring thoughts in half-soliloquy without forcing the audience to tolerate the irritating indulgence of actual soliloquies. “Dog,” ponders Atlas, alone, “why do dogs run away?” And when Dog alone does not suffice, literally the Virgin Mary herself is the understudy. Iris, finally admitting that she is incapable of being bound within the orbit of Atlas or maybe any person, reflects off the deity something similar to: “How do you love someone who’s so different from you?” I’m not sure that this biblical detour was necessary to the narrative, but Michelle Navarrete plays it well, and the mother of God basically jacking a lit cigarette (herbal only, we are reassured, in classic FaultLine fashion) from a disaffected Juniper and then smoking it before stubbing it out on the ground, well, that’s always going to be an entertaining picture.
The Virgin does provide a visible, flesh-and-bone link to the other side, though, and that is a useful device. As the play progresses, Dog is more and more presented with one paw in the afterlife, sometimes speaking directly with the otherwise ethereal Virgin, and as their interactions become more pronounced, you begin to feel that Dog will soon exit. This knowledge looms over every interaction, every flashback, like a four-legged countdown clock above a sports field in the final seconds of the game. Juniper and Iris write melancholy, heartstrings letters to each other out loud, separated by many miles and many years, yet so alike deep down that they mesh words in lockstep, missing only when the misalignment serves a rhetorical purpose: Juniper is bitter, younger, more mercurial; Iris is more unsure, penitent, ranging. In the background, Dog trots across, marking the dialog like a timeline, blissfully unaware, aging. And so we spend our time, fraught, trying to figure each other out, while Dog grows old and dies.
Above all, Dead Dog’s Bone is a set of character studies within a family study. Its chronology is expertly woven, and this is critical because all families are shaped by innumerable small events that occur over decades, forcing any family story to use a complex and generally non-linear timeline. The mark of good execution, then, is to be able to carry the melody of a present-day narrative while subtly backfilling the bass notes of history in a coherent way, always before they’re needed but never so obvious as to give away the future. Tjioe, Nicholls, and the present cast succeed at this in an unqualified way: everything hangs together as it unfolds, but the pacing never feels rushed or contrived.
The production is not without fault, however. Most glaringly, the Dog device that functions so well to deliver some points is, unfortunately, and maybe inevitably, prone to unsubtle dramatic overreach. When Dog is left unattended, his favorite activity is to break the fourth wall, looking into the audience and smiling goofily. I think this is meant as another nod to Dog as a transcendent character, in the way that people on their death beds are sometimes portrayed talking to long-dead relatives, in general surpassing the usual plane of mortal existence. However, it mostly gets stuck in the tar pit morass of all fourth-wall violations, coming off more as a hacky shortcut to profundity rather than the bona fide article. Dog is also a steady source of comedy, but this sometimes comes in the form of forced dog puns that disrupt and defuse otherwise-emotional scenes, robbing the talented actors of their cathartic due from the audience.
My other least favorite narrative time-saver, the dream sequence, also made a few brief and lamentable appearances: Atlas literally has a scene with the world on his shoulders, and then there are a few dreams involving foxes. Since you can’t really change a script, the best move by director Nicholls was pressing these dream foxes into garbage duty while they had to be on stage. As they scampered, they also picked up the torn remnants of letters that Juniper had been writing and then shredding all play long, the accumulating bulk of which had begun to turn the stage into a white-coated hazard by minute 80.
Dead Dog’s Bone moved me the most when the characters talked to each other without artifice, advancing the plot the way that real life advances. The dramatic appeal of Iris and Juniper speaking near-identical lines in perfect synchronicity is obvious, but I ultimately find that type of thing less powerful than a well-wrought actual conversation. Similarly, there are a few singing scenes in the play that also put a cardboard taste in my mouth, and not for lack of vocal talent: it’s worth mentioning that this cast is a set of double threats, at least, with Juniper in particular getting a chance to unleash a notable voice. It’s just not a musical, and the occasional appearance of a bit of song felt like a jarring departure rather than a window on real lives.
The sum total works, though, and the story itself is accessible and solid. I simultaneously knew what would happen yet still somehow wanted to know what would happen, happy to watch novel characters bring to life a set of the same shared stories that all humans seem to have by a certain age. Van de Mark and Whipple succeeded in building up a believable sometime passion, at once buffeted against each other but yet always pulling apart from the first, like two objects that had collided but were now relegated to watching each other slowly, inexorably ricocheting away. Viñas and Chung were similarly good in their reductive mimic of this prototype relationship. Though, like any echo, their version was fainter and less detailed than the original, an outcome that felt intentional, as the Juniper-Tim thread faded into the background of a much more important overall comment on family and life.
At its heart, Dead Dog’s Bone examines life in terms of the desire to find permanence in a natural world where things constantly end or, at least, change beyond recognition. Against the timescale of a human life, a dog’s life is a particularly comprehensible parable: they live long enough to lull us into a sense of permanence, but then the rug gets yanked out, and what we are used to is gone forever. The death of a beloved dog is then a particularly destructive event for us, cutting once as the loss of a longtime friend and then again as an unmissable metaphor.
These sentiments are not hard to find in the play, and in fact, some of them are literally written on the wall. The set design for this staging uses immense blackboards for the three primary walls, and various thoughts and literary musings are written dreamily in sidewalk chalk across all of them. Prismatic doodles intermingle, and the whole effect is as if the play is occurring within the moods and memory fragments inside of somebody’s head: “Good humor melts into melancholy,” “He bakes his own bread,” “Dog enjoys the sea,” “Sunlight like butter melting into her skin.” Among these, there is a part of the Pablo Neruda poem “If You Forget Me”:
“If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.”
Anybody who has been left at the shore of a heart where they have roots knows that it doesn’t work like that, that roots don’t work like that, no matter if we might want them to. Roots fix you deeply to things, and you cannot order them off or extricate them without trauma. If you pull a plant from the ground, you will feel it tear, and its roots will leave behind fragments. Sometimes these wither slowly, and sometimes they grow anew, but it is never clean. That, to me, is the nature of roots and equally the nature of hearts. If you love something, then you will root to it, and you will each leave pieces of yourself with the other when you are separated.
- Saturday, December 12th, at 5pm
- Saturday, December 12th, at 7pm
- Wednesday, December 16th, at 9pm
- Thursday, December 17th, at 7pm
- Friday, December 18th, at 7pm
- Saturday, December 19th at 5pm
- Saturday, December 19th at 9pm