André Alexis’ novel was recommended to me in the spring of 2021 and it became a reading highlight of that year. Two greek gods, Hermes and Apollo, discussing humanity’s foibles at the Wheatsheaf Tavern, felt both fanciful and familiar. Distinctly Toronto neighbourhoods become the setting for a wager between the bickering deities and their grand experiment. If given human consciousness, would dogs fare better than us? Could even one of them die happy?
Marie Farci’s adaptation of Fifteen Dogs, presented by Crow’s Theatre, is a bold and ambitious experiment of its own. Critics and audiences have thoroughly embraced this production. I went in with particularly high expectations that were, perhaps, too exaggerated and I left entertained yet underwhelmed.
No singular aspect of the show is lacking. The theatrical reconfiguration of the narrative, the striking yet understated design, all the performative little yips and barks of the cast are artful and measured. This is solid and purposeful, bursting dynamic creativity. It just didn’t hit me right.
The story follows these fifteen dogs that are granted human awareness. They form a small society in High Park. Estranged from normal dogs, their idiosyncrasies put them into conflict and raise questions about the human condition. As it progresses, the narrative explores the complexities of social structures, existential dread, human connection and even the artistic impulse.
We have, for instance, Prince (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff)—inspired by his new awareness of the nuanced grandeur of the world, devises his own language and composes poetry to express his wonder. Farci and Jackman-Torkoff envision him as a hyperactive beatnik and his vocal and physical contortions are genuinely hilarious.
Atticus (Tyrone Savage), particularly unnerved by his new self-consciousness, is distressed by this behaviour and becomes aggressive in his attempts to lead the dogs back to their canine way of life. They can’t truly regress, only play act their previous dynamic. As they navigate their fraught situation, tension mounts and violence erupts.
The group breaks apart and we follow each of the dogs on their individual journeys throughout the city. Majnoun (Tom Rooney), after a vicious attack, is nursed back to health by a human couple—Nira (Laura Condlln) and Miguel (Jackman-Torkoff). Nira and Majnoun develop a deep and intimate friendship. Their inter-species relationship is one of the most compelling aspects of the story. Rooney’s grounded performance, which quivers with barely contained angst and empathy, is amusing and poignant.
The entire ensemble (Jackman-Torkoff, Condlln, Savage, Rooney, Mirabella Sundar Singh and Peter Fernandes) play multiple roles—dog, human and god. They also jump in as omniscient narrators. It’s tricky, at first, to keep track of who is who, but as we fixate on the minutiae of their existence, we’re able to differentiate them well enough. And each performer is committed to the humour and pathos.
As the dogs die, the book felt like an emotionally catastrophic whittling down to a fine point—to a brief and beautiful glimpse at our human capacity for love amidst the disruptive trauma of life. The play gets to this same place, essentially, but it feels like an achingly slow, meandering crawl. The play really drags down the final stretch; I found myself exhausted and mentally pushing it along to its conclusion.
In her script and direction, Farsi has heightened the story’s mythological scope in a way that feels simultaneously epic and goofy. I appreciate the aesthetic and playful character interpretations. With bare chest, gold-sequinned cape and microphone, Jackman-Torkoff’s take on Zeus as a Vegas crooner is one flamboyant highlight.
Julie Fox’s rag-tag costumes subtly evoke canine features—a mangy winter hat with pokey ears, a furry vest, scarves and jackets draped over bodies help define each character. Her set conjures a vivid sense of place. Wires strung between telephone poles and screens depicting a looming overcast sky provide an ominous backdrop. Panels of grass and sidewalk, punctuated with tiny protruding shoots and patches of moisture, complete the scene.
There are moments of great whimsy and emotional resonance, but this story doesn’t work for me in this format. In the book, we are immersed in the characters’ experience. The urgent intimacy of the storytelling balances the outlandishness of the premise. Here, though, with layers of theatrical artifice, it feels a little too self-aware and affected.
Despite an appreciation for its craft and my sincere intention to love it as much as the source novel, I felt too distant—merely an observer. It’s thrilling audiences, however, and its run has been extended, so take my experience with a grain of salt.