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Dog and Cat Fight 

Racial and marital strife onstage at Smokebrush

In the late Victorian era, poet Eugene Field wrote a children's poem entitled "The Duel" which began:

The gingham dog and the calico cat

Side by side on the table sat;

'T was half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)

Nor one nor t' other had slept a wink!

In Lanford Wilson's 1965 play titled The Gingham Dog, the two combatants are more pedestrian: Gloria (A. Lynne Bell), a black woman, and Vincent (Ricky Vila-Roger), her white husband. The play opens and closes on the last day of their marriage in their lower east side apartment. Gloria and Vincent are dividing up their possessions and calling it quits. In the era of Civil Rights, of CORE and SNCC and Freedom Riders, they cannot make their marriage transcend the racial realities of America in the '60s.

The gingham dog went "Bow-wow-wow!"

And the calico cat replied "Mee-ow!"

The air was littered, an hour or so,

With bits of gingham and calico,

While the old Dutch clock in the chimney-place

Up with its hands before its face,

For it always dreaded a family row!

Like the clock in the Field poem, the miscommunication and destruction of Gloria and Vincent's marriage has witnesses -- their bumbling hippie neighbor Robert (Joshua Jones), and Vincent's over-the-top southern sister Barbara (Kelcey McKinley), who appear at the end time to lend a hand and further the destruction of the relationship.

Lanford Wilson has written some powerful dialogue about the difficulty of ingrained racism in American culture. While some of the play dates itself with references to Civil Rights organizations and the group-think of the era (as well as a wonderful line about having "IBM machines" talk to one another), director Tony Babin made the clear choice to avoid re-creating a period piece. Instead, as he writes in the program notes, the decision to produce this play comes from a recent brush with contemporary racism, and most of the costuming and set design is only vaguely referential to times past.

Both Bell and Vila-Roger do justice to Wilson's powerful dialogue, and by the climax of the first act, I believe that the entire audience was holding its breath. Bell in particular plays well in the intimate space of the Smokebrush cabaret theater-in-the-round, while maintaining the requisite distance and dignity of a born actress.

Vila-Roger did a fine job as the sometimes sympathetic, sometimes despicable husband who cannot reconcile his ingrained racism with the loss of the woman he clearly loves. Both actors ratcheted up the emotion and worked well against each other in the especially intense moments. For both, their quiet moments were less accomplished, and their monologues occasionally felt a little contrived, but all was forgiven as they were able to face off in the face of the ugliest of human situations.

Jones and McKinley provided most of the comic relief for The Gingham Dog, but whatever relief was available was short lived. Their funny moments were quickly turned upside down by Wilson's quick and powerful dialogue, and the writing kept me on the edge of my seat. Jones showed some of the common problems for an acting newcomer -- a few problems with lines, a little physical awkwardness -- but he also had an easy stage presence which was a pleasure to watch. McKinley, sporting a ridiculously oversized wig, demonstrated excellent comic timing and an ability to switch from soft, bumbling Southerner to vicious sister-in-law that was quite convincing.

Alas, although Eugene Field wrote his poem in the late 19th century, and Lanford Wilson his play in the mid-20th, Upstart Performing Ensemble's production in the early 21st is quite contemporary.

Next morning, where the two had sat

They found no trace of dog or cat;

And some folks think unto this day

That burglars stole that pair away!

But the truth about the cat and pup

Is this: they ate each other up!

Now what do you really think of that!

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