For the Next Stage Festival, Nowadays Theatre presents Heart of a Dog. This is a filmed remount of Mohammad Yaghoubi’s adaptation of the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov—a satire of communism that was written in 1925, but went unpublished until the late 1980s. The work has been quite extensively adapted into film, opera and theatre, but Yaghoubi’s treatment adds an added layer of social commentary—taking aim at religious oppression in Iran.
The story fixates on the trappings of a tyrannical state—an intrusive world of slogans and bureaucracy. The dialogue is full of references to proper documents, collective identity and controlling committees.
We have Professor Preobrazhensky (Neta J. Rose)—whose “important work” has afforded him a certain privilege, rendering him essentially immune from the rigid restraints of state control. He finds a stray dog on the street—Sharik (Aida Keykhaii)—and implants a human pituitary gland into this brain. Sharik then slowly develops human traits—shedding his fur and acquiring speech.
What follows is an absurd and grotesque comedy of manners in which the professor and his household try to fashion the carnal and impulsive Sharik into a respectable human. They argue about human nature and ideology while Sharik indulges in the sensual pleasures of drink and flesh.
The performance style is broad and histrionic, the commentary so hyperbolic, that it shouldn’t land as solidly as it does. Yaghoubi employs his trademark meta-theatrical flourishes. These are, in Brechtian tradition, bold and alienating—scenes introduced by the performers, gender-swapping and a focus on dramatic intention rather than naturalistic behaviour.
It takes a while to adjust to Keykhaii’s canine-thug caricature, her coarse and garish portrayal has a cumulative effect that is deeply compelling. A quietly thrilling sense of danger pervades, the threat of violence always under the surface even when Sharik is at his most supplicant.
The political importance of Yaghoubi’s artistic intention is explicit, but doesn’t carry the weight it might have in Iran. The gender-swap casting and the male characters covering their heads in a hijab don’t feel as urgent to a relatively progressive, North American audience. The context is clear, but the impact is softened—more an intellectual experience than a visceral one.