Theatrical wisdom has long held that dogs and children can upstage almost anyone, and Fells Point Corner Theatre's production of "Heart of a Dog" takes this axiom one step further. It proves even an actor portraying a dog can do the upstaging.
In this case, the situation is further accentuated by Jordan Matter's splendid performance as the title canine in this adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's 1925 novella -- a satire of the Russian Revolution in which a Moscow physician attempts to create the ideal Soviet citizen by transplanting a human pituitary gland and testicles into a stray mutt.
As Sharik, the mutt, Matter doesn't wear a dog costume; instead, he's clothed in black slacks and a shirt, though he does move about on all fours. He is also endearing -- in a dog-of-the-streets, whimpering sort of way. Not content to merely address the audience, Matter sidles up to patrons, sniffing, licking and virtually begging to be petted. However, once Sharik is surgically "altered," he becomes a disgusting human cur. Granted, he walks upright, but his speech is more like a growl and his instincts are beastly; when he sits down to a civilized meal, the scene turns into something out of "Animal House."
Although this scene goes on too long, it is one of several examples of clever staging in this adaptation by Frank Galati, directed by Richard Jackson. The surgery scene is lit and staged with the melodramatic exaggeration of an old-time horror movie. And there are a couple Keystone Kops-inspired chases that conclude with the cast tumbling down like a row of dominoes.
As the physician, Bruce Godfrey starts out self-assured and proud, but as his experiment begins to go awry, he becomes a broken man. Pete Taylor is rather colorless as his eager young protege, but as I've said, it is difficult to compete with the dog.
On a stage with insufficient space to create an entire suite of rooms, set designer Jim Slivka has come up with an inventive solution -- concealed panels that open up like the leaves of a book to form the various rooms. Unfortunately, it takes time to set up these rooms. The director fills the gaps with stage business -- usually Sharik interfering with the stagehands. This is amusing, but at times it actually seems to prolong the scene changes, and it draws attention to the overly episodic nature of the script.
Bulgakov believed the Revolution's experiment was destined to fail. And, like the doctor's attempt to create a man from a dog, the Soviet experiment has recently proved to be brutish and short. When the doctor's assistant describes the result of the surgery as "a man with the heart of a dog," the doctor replies, "Good heavens, don't insult the dog." No wonder this work, long banned in its native land, became an instant hit in Moscow.
'Heart of a Dog'
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m.; matinees March 29 and April 12 at 2 p.m. Through April 12.
Where: Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.
Call: (410) 276-7837.