DOGFIGHT Review - Chicago Talent Meets Tepid Writing

The ultimate dramatic tension in BoHo Theatre’s 11th Season Closer, Dogfight, was watching the creative team of BoHo bend and grapple with the sometimes bland, sometimes offensive, rarely touching, and messy book and lyrics of Justin Paul and Peter Duchan (respectively). The show didn’t know what it wanted to be about, but landed on a feminist perspective: how does patriarchal demands for performing masculinity cripple men, especially soldiers? Could have been an interesting angle, and I could see Artistic Director Peter Marston Sullivan try to steer the performance in that direction. But a bad script is limiting, and one that is willing to sacrifice dynamics in their female characters for the sake of the male characters is a poor one. To watch great Boho talent fight against poor parameters is a tough drama to watch.

 

The Full Marine Ensemble

Dogfight, set in Vietnam War era San Diego, focuses on a group of young Marines on the night before deployment. To celebrate their last night in the States, they engage in a “dogfight”, a game where the soldiers compete to bring the ugliest date to a Marine party for a cash prize - without the knowledge of their dates.  The abrasive, central Marine, Corporal Eddie Birdlace (Garrett Lutz), finds his target in Rose Fenny (Emily Goldberg), a meek diner waitress, a flat character, and the fodder to forwarding his character’s course. The dogfight happens at the end of act one (carried on the impressively limber and hilarious Peter Robel, the smarmy, crooning Lounge Singer), Rose learns what a dogfight is, and the girls sing about how they’re worthless in the eyes of their dates. Act II frays, following different sets of relationships, dropping interesting characters from the first act, with a rushed, messy ending of a soldier’s return.

 

Eddie & Rose

Boho was successful in honoring the world of the play,  Patrick Ham constructed a multi-leveled, multi-purposed red set, reminiscent of the Golden Gate Bridge. The homage was simple, effectively placed us in the where (Theresa Ham’s realistic costume design placing us in the when), and enabled Stephen Schellhardt’s gorgeous, simple choreography to lift the story into a much more interesting place. His movement was perfectly pedestrian for the limited space in Theater Wit, and Sullivan’s ensemble of American soldiers had solid choral work. A big dance number, “Hey Good Lookin’”, featured the chorus of Marines making intricate movement patterns, aptly timed, all over the stage. This was one of the shining numbers of the whole piece, not just for the choreo, but I was put into their feeling of excitement, of their stakes on their last night, how they needed to believe in this trivial, cruel game before they have to fight a war they don’t understand. Ellen K Morris’ musical direction supported the show so well, I couldn’t tell if it was live or recorded. Projection design is a tricky tool: it distracts, doesn’t add anything, or finds that juicy perfect balance of enriching the world of the play without pulling focus (the hardest to grasp). The projections didn’t distract - until they tried to recreate a storm on the bridge that, admittedly, looked like a Powerpoint presentation - but they didn’t add that much either.  

At the Dogfight (L-R: Graffagna,Lutz, Goldberg, Matt Frye, and Young)

 

Three names stood way out: Peter Robel, Nick Graffagna, and - the sole source of show’s heart - Mary Kate Young. Robel was able to transition from lounge singer, to Sergeant, to drag queen, to tattoo artist - usually, whatever he was doing, in any scene, was more present, more honest than a lot of his scene partners. It was in Mary Kate Young’s character Marcy, singing the belt-heavy titular song, that I was able to emotionally connect to the play. Her voice wasn’t just polished, it had passion. Her movement wasn’t just learned, it took up space and presence. She snagged the audience in her performance, and left both my guest and I wishing the story had focused on her: a brutally self-aware, embittered prostitute that knows all about the dogfight games, willing to display her “freakish” broken teeth for a cut of pay, at the same time dealing with the pressure of defining her self worth (in her beauty, her power, her use, her sex). At the end of the dogfight contest, and after the song, the plot doesn’t branch out and evolve, but splinters.

 

Peter Robel during the War Sequence

Although Nick Graffagna was a stand-out performer, his plot line comes with snags as well. As the goofy, earnest, kind-hearted Bernstein, Graffagna’s voice was easily the best out of the male ensemble, his jokes the sweetest, and his movement the most enjoyable. But now the dogfight is over, and his buddies pressure him into buying a prostitute that can take his virginity before he can go off to war. The much abused actress, Carisa Gonzalez (who earlier played a Native American prop for a low-brow joke instead of a Native American character) plays a worn out prostitute, not giving her consent for a sexual transaction. What does that then mean? Every Marine in the play either pins the prostitute down and forcibly spreads her legs, or cheers on Bernstein to rape her, to get what’s ‘his’, in order for him to be strong enough to be a hero. The mathematics of his character’s actions, beliefs, questions, and the play's style does not add up to this moment - hugely representative of the second half of the play.

Bernstein, Birdlace, & Boland

I think Dogfight wanted to be a feminist play, adhering to the male experience, but the writing had no focus. The budding relationship between Eddie and Rose was forced, and most of the time, when Rose would disagree or attempt to exert her opinion, was shut down and the focus turned onto a new Marine problem. This was a major issue, the women were only used for the male journey, no matter how well the Boho actresses tried to lift these female characters into the real.For 5 minutes towards the end, we’re in Vietnam: a brief, ineffective, lights and sound war experience, and then a montage of hippies back in America that spit in Eddie’s face. How is this different, or offering a new perspective, from both the history and the artistic tropes of the Vietnam War? It’s not: a boy thinks he’s prepared to be a hero from killing others, he mistreats a woman, he kind of learns women are people too, once he’s in the war he learns its horrific realities, he returns home, the world feels different, and no one treats him like a hero. Nothing is new about this formula. For a piece written in 2012, coupled with an overused historical backdrop, you need to offer something new to the place, the time, the history, and/or the people to make the story worthwhile. Despite Boho’s best efforts, Dogfight did not.

Performances of Dogfight run Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm at Theater Wit. Tickets are available at www.BoHoTheatre.com  or the Theater Wit box office at 773-975-8150.

 

Photos by: Amy Boyle : amyboylephotography.com

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