Center Stage gets a basset for its `Gentlemen'

THEATER

Theater Column

February 03, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

You might say competition for the role has been dog eat dog. The role is that of Crab, canine companion of a character in Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Galt MacDermot's 1971 rock musical, adapted from Shakespeare's comedy, begins performances at Center Stage Feb. 11. And to be truthful, "dog-eat-dog" is a bit of an exaggeration. That's because director Irene Lewis' ideal is a laid-back animal with, as she puts it, "a distinctive deadpan look," a dog that fits its owner's line, "Hang down your head, Crab."

"She wants a dog in his King Lear years," explains Robert Dorfman, the Center Stage veteran playing Crab's owner, Launce, servant of one of the show's title characters.

Although the dog appears briefly in both acts, its role is basically a walk-on. Still, finding the perfect Crab has been no easy matter. A St. Bernard-Labrador retriever mix billed as "mellow" made its entrance by charging into the audition. Then there was the "depressed beagle." The owner told Lewis she'd never seen the animal so active.

A dog lover, Lewis has used them in everything from Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (a Boston terrier and an Irish wolfhound) to Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband (a Jack Russell and a Shetland sheepdog). In these cases, putting a dog in the show was Lewis' idea.

But a dog is one of the characters in John Guare and Mel Shapiro's libretto for Two Gentlemen of Verona, just as it is in the original Shakespeare. And Lewis doesn't want just one dog; she wants two, so the animals can play alternate performances and not get too tired out.

The first dog was cast last week. A basset hound named Peabody, the dog belongs to Carla Moose, who works in the Center Stage business office. Moose adopted Peabody a week before Christmas, after the dog's owner died. Initially, Moose was reluctant to have Peabody audition. For one thing, she says, "He had been through kind of a rough time." For another, "He's an obese 10-year-old basset hound with severe arthritis and a club foot."

Eventually, she was persuaded to bring Peabody to meet Dorfman. A former Ringling Bros. clown, Dorfman is accustomed to being "surrounded by animals." But, he says, this will be his first time working "one on one, mano a doggo."

The two "hit it off immediately," Moose says. "Dorfman got down on the floor with him, and he looked up at Dorfman with his big eyes and looked like he'd follow him anywhere."

The next challenge was to see how Peabody would react to an audience. The dog was one of four brought on stage after a school matinee of Center Stage's Elmina's Kitchen. The first dog kept walking in circles around Dorfman. The second acted as if it couldn't get away fast enough. The third was too lively.

Finally, it was Peabody's turn. The dog lumbered on stage, its belly practically dragging on the floor. The students went wild, clapping and cheering. "He just has that look," Dorfman explains. "When he walks on stage it's not just `dog,' it's `star dog.'"

As to the second dog Lewis hopes to cast, so far none has come up to Peabody's high standard. An elderly, arthritic chocolate Lab showed promise this week. Its dour facial expression was excellent, and it did fine when it came to lying down, but then it couldn't get up.

Never fear, however. Center Stage remains dogged in its efforts to find Dog No. 2. Two more bassets - one geriatric and visually impaired - are scheduled to come in today, and director Lewis is optimistic.

Meanwhile, Peabody and Moose are gearing up for stardom. "Irene says he's got `it,'" Moose says proudly. Then, like a true stage mother, she adds, "Maybe he'll get a line or two."

Two Gentlemen of Verona runs Feb. 11-March 27 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $10-$65. Call 410-332-0033.

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