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Theatre in Review: The Offending Gesture (The Tank/3-Legged Dog/Connelly Theater)

Seated: Kristine Haruna Lee. Standing: Catherine Brookman, Julia Sima Frest, Starr Busby, Lacy Rose, Alaina Ferris. Photo: Richard Termine

Here's the stranger-than-fiction premise of The Offending Gesture: In 1941, a Finnish businessman named Tor Borg owned a dog named Jackie, who, upon hearing the words "Hitler" or "Heil Hitler" -- accounts vary -- raised a paw in salute. The Nazis were sufficiently distressed by what they saw as an act of disrespect that Borg was summoned to the German embassy in Helsinki and made to defend himself. Borg did his best, but the issue apparently remained unresolved. According to Wikipedia, the Nazis tried to have the German conglomerate IG Farben refuse to supply materials to Borg's business, a pharmaceutical concern.

It's an odd, but revealing, incident, offering an insight into the gnawing insecurities that plague tyrants, and playwright Mac Wellman spins it into a fantasia about pets, dictators, and, yes, America's invasion of Iraq. Much of the action involves Jackie, the dog (Kristine Haruna Lee, in shorts and a blouse) being interrogated by Heinrich Himmler, followed by sequences in which Blondi, Hitler's pooch (Abby Rosebrock, in a red-and-white minidress with a Peter Pan collar), tries to learn from Jackie how to do the heil. (It is a spectacular failure, to Blondi's eternal frustration.) Also, Hitler, here called Noble Wolf (an apparent translation of "Adolph"), is a dominating -- and often hilariously fatuous -- presence, especially when trying to demonstrate his wit, with remarks like "Sometimes I think you have the mind of a movie doorman.")

The entire cast is female, including a chorus of five, several of whom are known as "mooncats." (Don't ask me why.) Noble Wolf is also obsessed, to a surprising degree, with Wuffles, Churchill's dog. (As Jackie sagely points out, neither Wuffles nor that all-American favorite, Lassie, can do the salute, either.) This allows for the introduction into the conversation of Iraq, referred to as "the land that Churchill created out of sticks and bricks and chewing gum" and "Churchill's toy." And, for a while, anyway, Nobel Wolf thinks about invading that country himself.

If you're feeling confused, remember that Wellman never attacks a subject head-on, preferring the sideways approach, complete with bizarre plot cul-de-sacs, extra-theatrical devices, and richly allusive, and often mandarin, language. The Offending Gesture has its moments: Blondi's attempts at learning the salute from Jackie have a rollicking, vaudevillian feel about them. Lee and Rosebrock constitute as game a pair of human-seeming canines you'll find this side of A.R. Gurney's Sylvia. As Noble Wolf, Layla Khoshnoudi shows real comic flair, creating a character whose solemnity and labored, pompous way of speaking is meant to cover the reality of a leader hanging onto his dignity by his fingernails. In Khoshnoudi's line readings, Noble Wolf often seems to lose the thread of a sentence before completing it, nervously looking around to see if anyone else has noticed. She is particularly priceless when, trying to demonstrate a sense of humor, Noble Wolf tells a long, laborious joke about Hermann Göering, which ends with a thud. Humorlessness has rarely been so amusing.

Yet these elements somehow fail to add up to a satisfying evening. Wellman's dog's-eye view of the semiotics of power seems awfully thin on ideas; it dawdles, it meanders, it pauses for passages of vocalizing, and scenes seem to repeat endlessly. Even the ravishing musical scenes (composed by Alaina Ferris and beautifully sung by the Mooncats) come to seem like so many interruptions. A last-minute reference to the Bush Administration's invasion of Iraq comes out of nowhere in a strange attempt at capping off the show. It is merely mystifying; the circumstances of Hitler's brief and unconsummated flirtation with that country (which was encouraged by anti-British Iraqis) was nothing like the long-running calamity of Bush's Middle East misadventure. If this is the punch line to the joke, it's little better than Noble Wolf's snapper about Goering.

Meghan Finn's production benefits from an impressive set, by Christopher and Justin Swader, depicting the Third Reich as a vast warren of pigeonholes stuffed with bureaucratic paper. Brian Aldous' lighting design is solid for the most part, although the prologue is strangely handled: Three actors stand in the darkness, two of them illuminated by uplight that misses their faces altogether; was this intended? Hard to say; in any case, it makes for a most uninviting opening. Emily Blumenauer's costumes, including a Hitler outfit that does in fact resemble a doorman's uniform, are fine, as is Eric Sluyter's sound.

There's a lot of talent involved in The Offending Gesture, but somehow its many good bits don't come together to create a persuasive alternate world. It doesn't offend, but neither does it sufficiently provoke. -- David Barbour

(12 January 2016)

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