Expect the Spanish Inquisition from Red Tape Theatre

Dog in a Manger works less as a play and more as a two-and-a-half hour polemic.

By Pete Russell

Finally, cutting-edge theater that requires its audience to have taken Sosc. From Foucault to Freud, from Nietzsche to Marx, you’ll find it all in James Palmer’s adaptation of Dog in a Manger. If you haven’t taken the proper prerequisites, this play might leave you with a headache. Regardless of your attitude toward philosophy, this self-proclaimed “avant-garde love story” will compel and entertain.

Palmer uses the plot of Lope de Vega’s 1613 play El perro del hortelano, about a tangle of love affairs during the Spanish Inquisition, as a foundation for a contemporary love story. The low-born protagonist, Teodoro, falls in love with Countess Belfore’s handmaiden, Marcella. Countess Belfore is in love with Teodoro. Ricardo, the inquisitor, is in love with the countess. Fabio and Marcella have a brief fling. Fabio then ends up with Anarta. The plot is extremely complex, but its entertainment value is secondary to Palmer’s ideas about the human condition in modern society.

Much of the dialogue is overtly philosophical. In the second scene Tristan, Teodoro’s lacky, launches into a long and convoluted diatribe against Teodoro, who claims to be in love. Tristan says that Teodoro does not actually see his lover, but an image composed of magazine ads, TV stars, and other ideals of beauty which he then projects onto his lover. Tristan continues his monologue with a vaguely Nietzschean apothegm about how even if reality is illusion, it’s the only illusion we can know, so you might as well take advantage of it. Meanwhile, Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is projected behind the stage along with cubes and calculus equations. The double-edged irony at work in this scene is exploited throughout the play: Philosophy mocks the naive lover Teodoro, while another theatrical element mocks the philosophizing.

Although it may be overused, the philosophical irony is at least funny. The cast did a good job bringing the humor out of the script. Paul Miller plays a Fabio that is so convincingly scummy, I wonder what he is like in real life. Michael Gonring plays a sardonic Tristan very well. Bryan Kelly gives a hilarious turn as Ricardo the inquisitor. In one speech he says that a certain ratio of spinach, milk, and tomatoes will make one retarded and that bumblebees release lethal biochemicals. In another scene, he waxes on about how much he loves smashing kittens’ faces. Perhaps Ricardo disseminates false information with sadistic intention because he is the instrument of the inquisition. This might be a stretch; like a lot of the play, Ricardo’s character is funny and thought-provoking, but pinning down the symbolism was extremely difficult.

The production also has some serious moments which are played rather well. Palmer displays a poetic deftness that helps sustain these moments. Also, the entire cast proves extremely versatile, conveying highs and lows equally well. Palmer exhibits a litany of styles, moving from stilted 18th-century diction to current slang in the space of a few sentences.

If love were the only theme, I would give this play a strong recommendation. The production is very funny, and when it draws blood, the play does so with insight. However, Dog in a Manger takes on too much and ends up muddled. First, Palmer makes every cynical observation about love. His vicious cynicism leaves only smoldering ruins. On top of that, Ricardo discusses the nature of power in his many asides. Not to be outdone, the countess uses her asides to give a fatalistic analysis of contemporary society. Even the naïve lover, Teodoro, holds forth the evils of American consumerism. Clearly, Palmer bit off more than he could chew.

Before the action begins, the play is introduced on the P.A. with the forced post-modern metacomment, “Please refrain from empathizing too much with any of the characters.” Unfortunately, Red Tape Theatre’s production of Dog in a Manger spends more time mobilizing contemporary ideas about love than it does dramatizing a contemporary experience of love. With the exception of Ricardo, who occupies a thematic island, none of the characters is all that strong. The play conveys a single, fragmented idea about 21st-century bourgeois America. No character invites empathy. Dog in a Manger works less as a play and more as a two-and-a-half hour polemic.