by Christian Carvajal
Think back to the last children’s theatre you attended. Remember how cuddly, eager and sweet it was? Well, Theater Artists Olympia’s new show, Poona the Fuckdog, is not that show. In fact, it’s the show that punched that show right in its fuzzy widdle belly and strolled off with its lunch money. I find TAO’s audacity refreshing, as it’s always entertaining to watch audience members wrestle with productions that are so in touch with their inner imps. I also applaud TAO for choosing a script that demands shameless vulgarity, given actors’ common temptation to impose bawdy elements onto scripts that don’t benefit from them.
Are you offended by depictions of sexual anatomy or behavior? Then a playpen draped in pudenda won’t sit right — no pun intended — nor will Christian Doyle’s phallic costume, complete with turtleneck. This show is ballsy in more ways than one. But the ballsiest cast member has to be Alison Monda, so good as the Witch in Lakewood Playhouse’s Into the Woods, now radiating absolute star quality as the titular canine. Her full-body commitment is evident throughout, from her scant wardrobe to abraded knees — dogs crawl a lot, and hump legs, and treat the heartbreak of heartworms — to licking her own drool off the floor of the Midnight Sun, a suicidal act tantamount to allowing Patient Zero to sneeze in your eye. She plays both drunk and geriatric convincingly, and she even finds a new way to cry on stage. Finally, given the nature of the show, it has to be said: Alison Monda is one sexy dog, a sentence I was pretty sure I’d never have occasion to type in my life.
Director Robert McConkey tells interviewers his play — a loose series of sketches supporting a central narrative — is about the hypocrisy of declaring some words off-limits while ignoring more injurious offenses, but I think he knows it’s really about nothing deeper than the next big laugh — and there are plenty. Each of the 14 cast members gets a chance to shine. It must be said, however, that even as we’re laughing we notice how much of the comedy derives from shock value, and it’s hard to sustain that approach for long. As most sketch shows eventually do, Poona runs out of gas an hour in, and an anticlimactic, indecisively staged act break doesn’t re-inspire confidence. The second act puts Poona back on the rails.
Chris Cantrell and Paul Purvine shine in at least two roles each, including an updated “Who’s on First” duet about extraterrestrials with unfortunate names. Scott Brown underplays masterfully, and Rob Taylor channels Prince Humperdinck in a role he accepted a mere week before opening.
The few weak bits suffer primarily from a collision of acting styles. It’s hard to fit presentational and representational acting into a single production. Cantrell and Brown live in the moment of each scene, playing honestly, and we laugh because we empathize. Others orate directly and insincerely to the audience in the manner of emcees. This self-distancing risks coming across as a desire to be loved, and it adds to the camp factor of a script that already has plenty.
The highest compliment I can give Poona, or its parent company TAO, is that without productions so vital, so willing to challenge or even offend, there’s little reason to write new scripts at all. We could simply coast on the merits of a hundred dusty old standbys, a path many companies follow toward short-term lucre…and inevitable decline.
Poona the Fuckdog runs one final weekend at the Midnight Sun in Olympia.
[Midnight Sun, Poona the Fuckdog, through Dec. 20, 8 p.m. Dec. 17-19. 2 p.m. Dec. 20, $12, 113 Columbia St., NW, Olympia, 360.250.2721]