Flying Anvil’s ‘Dog Act’ hits bull’s-eye

Harold DuckettOur Town Arts, West Knoxville

There are so many layers to playwright Liz Duffy Adams’ “Dog Act,” which just opened at Flying Anvil Theatre in Rocky Hill, it may take seeing it multiple times to catch everything that’s going on.

Each time anyone sees it is certain to be a good time and morph what the play seems to be about.

On the surface, it’s a simple, often hilarious, story with only four main characters and two random scavengers: Joe Casterline’s Coke and David Snow’s Bud, who come on stage at serendipitous intervals.

Zetta, played with the excitement of a huckster by Deb Weathers and Dog (perhaps to be read backward), played with equal skill by John Simmins, are displaced vaudevillians who managed to retain their cart, looking like a prairie snake-oil salesman’s wagon, after a vaguely defined apocalypse wrecked their world as they knew it.

Zetta, short for Rosetta Stone, is quick-witted and clever. Dog, not so much. At least not at first assessment. But Dog’s backstory, gradually revealed throughout the play, changes that perception. For past mistakes, Dog underwent a species demotion after the Trump Tower of Babel fell. Now, Zetta and Dog are roaming the Northeast, trying to find their way to China but performing for whatever audiences they can find, for what little money or barter anyone can scrape together. When they can catch one, they survive on “Fiuirrels” radiated half-fish, half-squirrel creatures.

Before long, Vera, played with wisdom and conviction by Deborah Webb, and Lauren Winder’s Jo Jo wander into the scene. The wiring got crossed in Jo Jo’s brain during the past catastrophe (hinted as a cathedral collapse – or metaphor of one). She trusts only Vera (Vera Similitude) and delivers soliloquies at the blinding pace of a speed-reader racing through all of the things that could go wrong if anyone takes the drug the pharmaceutical company just tried to sell in its new TV ad.

From there, it’s clear that there’s a lot more to “Dog Act” than a mere evening’s stress-reducing silly entertainment. What transpires is like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” written and performed by a Laurel and Hardy cast, mixed with characters and dialogue from “Deliverance,” had Shakespeare written the script.

But maybe the whole thing is just a phantasmagoria, as Zetta suspects China might be. As she and Dog perambulated, they ran into the Canadian barrier wall to the north. But they are afraid of going as far south as Texas because, as Zetta says, “the Texas skateboarding skinhead union had driven the Aztecs out of their rightful land.”

As Zetta describes it, the world has become a “primordial wet. When it got you, you got; metallic haha in salt … spring got froze in translation, unfettered by any reverence for facts.”

Catching those and other references (Zetta’s pet name of “Snoop” for Dog, for instance) as they zip by at warp speed would take a half-speed playback and several times listening.

John Ferguson’s set for “Dog Act” consists of mostly the cart, wheeled on and off stage past what might be destroyed structures now covered in dust, or nature itself shrouded in. Erin Reed’s costumes capture the ragged piece-together of the what’s-left environment.

How on-target this play is for the current political moment and American social chaos makes it prophetic, considering Adams wrote it in 2004.

But as much as Adams created its magical, musical language and set-up, it’s Jayne Morgan’s direction that sets everything in motion in a way that all of this rich verbal and nonverbal material is comprehendible, as well as a laugh-a-minute hoot.

Flying Anvil is at 1300 Rocky Hill Road. “Dog Act” runs through Feb. 17 at 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees on Feb. 10 and 17.  More information and tickets can be found here.

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