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November 9, 2008 | by  | in Theatre |
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The Little Dog Laughed

The Little Dog Laughed

Written by Douglas Carter Beane
Directed by Willem Wassenaar

At Downstage
Nov 7 – 29

Reviewed by Jackson Coe

The music is pumping, the lights are flashing and the crowd is roaring as we enter the auditorium at Downstage and take our seats for The Little Dog Laughed. The faux excitement is infectious.

Yet with closer inspection we see hints that the play’s themes are more harrowing than we may at first assume. The atmosphere is staged. The iconic ‘Hollywood’ sign, a symbol of stardom and fantasy, lies scattered about in ruins. Dreams are in pieces and we are about to explore the tough reality that the things we want and the things which will make us happy are not always the same thing. This stunning production shows that director Willem Wassenaar finds it no struggle to demonstrate again and again his sharp aptitude for directing riveting theatre.

Richard Knowles plays Mitchell Green, a rising actor on the brink of stardom who ‘suffers from a slight recurring case of homosexuality’. His agent Diane, played by a saucy Renee Sheridan, is trying her hardest to make sure Mitch succeeds while helping to keep his sexuality a closely-guarded secret. Her efforts are undermined when Mitch falls for Alex, a young rent-boy played by Kip Chapman. In a series of racy exchanges we see the two exploring an intimacy which gradually turns to love. The show comes to a climax when Alex’s sometime girlfriend Ellen, played by Sophie Hambleton, returns with a complication which could either be a serious problem or a genius solution.

Amidst the more notable strengths in this production is the script, a quality work penned by American playwright Douglas Carter Beane. We know that Hollywood films push an idealised version of heterosexual love, and that the industry which surrounds it is no better. In undermining many typical narrative components the play taps into a more subversive analysis of human relationships. For instance, one of the driving forces of the action is agent Diane’s work to get a play turned into a movie; in a self-referential twist, it seems to be suggested that it is the very play we are watching that is being discussed. We think that we are breaking away from the Hollywood system until we hit the ending, when we realise that the might of the Hollywood machine, that picture of happiness which habitually shapes us into its image, cannot be escaped so easily. All in all, it is in my opinion a damn fine piece of writing.

The play’s themes are reinforced well by Daniel William’s original set design. The set is comprised of the ruined letters of a Hollywood sign, signifying that we are treading a world beyond Hollywood ideals where the true desires of the individual may have more chance of being realised. His set pieces move fluidly and surprisingly naturally about the stage, considering their size and shape, and the whole visual package is remarkably crisp.

The play’s content is suitably challenging for actors and audience alike, and here director Willem Wassenaar has guided his players superbly. The stage is alive from beginning to ending, and a range of risque moments are handled with utter expertise…it’s pretty safe at this point to say that Wassenaar knows his hot men, that’s for sure.

This play is a great piece of contemporary theatre with real themes, engrossing performers and a pertinant message. Wassenaar’s work continues to be some of the most interesting and engaging in Wellington, and the future of Wellington theatre will be bright as long as he is here.

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