It's What You Say and How You Say It
Witness Relocation’s Vicious Dogs on Premises as part of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater’s INCUBATOR Program, May 29–June 14
"Cruelty and torture are often the product of conditioning and weird choices, if you look at it from a scientist’s point of view.” This snippet from dance theater company Witness Relocation’s press release for their latest show, Vicious Dogs on Premises, encapsulates the experience of their performance: it is, by shades, a complex construction, a straightforward statement, funny, abstract, elemental, and universal.
The conceptual cornerstones of Vicious Dogs are taken from Romanian playwright Saviana Stanescu’s play, commissioned for the show, and psychology’s Choice Theory and Choice Overload, which deal with the relationship of choice-making to happiness, and the notion that having more choices is always desirable. For the logistics, Witness Relocation hauls out a whole bag of tricks: synchronized dance, improv comedy, timed activities, written instructions, live video and dog masks. Signboards sitting before the audience list cues for tasks, scenes and dance combinations to be performed. Each night, the order of the list and which actor reads which sign is mixed up, so the show is always different. Plus there’s all the ad-libbing.
The night I attended, Vicious Dogs opened with four actors in formalwear with “Hello My Name Is” nametags each giving an improvised description of the worst way they could imagine dying. The two men and two women started and stopped their monologues at the sound of a bell, operated by Artistic Director Dan Safer, who sat at a media console beside the stage. Mike Mikos’ brief monologue began something like:
(ding!) “I’m forced to eat forty tabs of acid—acid from the 1970s so it’s really strong—and I start eating this bowl of broken glass that I think is corn flakes and I think it’s delicious but my insides are getting all torn up—” (ding!)
Then the actors fell into zigzag formation across the stage and danced exhaustively for several minutes, jumping and launching into synchronized handstands. The bell rang and they picked up plastic chairs and held them aloft, frozen in positions of self-defense, while “A Whole New World” from the Disney movie Aladdin played loudly.
One after another, skit-vignettes rolled in rapid succession, each packing layers of meaning and allusion into its abridged lifespan. In one scene, Heather Christian repeatedly handed Sean Donovan a small potted plant, which he would barely have time to thank her for before she pulled a plastic bag over his head and shoved him to the ground. In another, Christian slapped Laura Berlin Stinger in the face; Stinger asked for it again and again, all the while naturally recoiling. When Stinger yelled, “Now punch me in the boobs!” and Christian obliged, Stinger realized that hurt more and requested a return to the face slapping. “This is stupid,” she finally said. Then the bell rang.
One of the best scenes had the four characters seated around a kitchen table engaged in a cross between welcoming and interrogating an invisible fifth person seated on the floor. “How are you?!” they screamed at him. “Do you need anything?!” They synchronously stamped their feet and flashed jazz hands, they slammed the table violently and the audience laughed and winced, both tickled and shocked.
In Vicious Dogs, Witness Relocation adeptly built a multi-dimensional collage of our “conditioning and weird choices.” The production didn’t attempt to account for the roots of these things, but it didn’t need to: it was perfectly satisfying (and unsettling) to see ourselves reflected in the show’s weirdness, and then to take it ourselves—laughing, sweating, and contemplating—from there.
April Greene, the Rail's dance editor, lives, writes, and bikes in Brooklyn.