BWW Review: Bridge Rep Revamps Swimmingly With DOG PADDLE

Dog Paddle (or, struggling inelegantly against drowning)

Written by Reto Finger, Translated by Lily Sykes, Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon; Scenic & Lighting Design, Larry Sousa; Costume Design, Charles Schoonmaker; Sound Design, David Reiffel; Properties, Zoe Golub-Sass; Production Stage Manager, Samantha Layco

CAST (in alphabetical order): Esme Allen, Jeremy Browne, Bridgette Hayes, Ed Hoopman, Omar Robinson

Performances through August 20 by Bridge Repertory Theater at the Studio Theater at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA; Tickets www.bridgerep.org

Bridge Rep embarks on its fourth year as a small theatre company with big ideals by reimagining, reinventing, and restructuring their role. Their new programming menu includes workshops, a variety of "tapas" (small-scale events), and a pair of fully realized mainstage productions, all geared toward carving out a unique identity among the many purveyors of performing arts in Boston. With three seasons of acclaimed work under their belts, Producing Artistic Director Olivia D'Ambrosio and her team of Playmakers are choosing not to rest on their laurels, but to pursue their vision to grow the company, themselves, and their audiences.

While maintaining a standard of excellence that has come to be expected, Bridge Rep expands its tent to welcome a trio of actors making their debuts with the company, as well as Guy Ben-Aharon as director of the United States premiere of Dog Paddle (or, struggling inelegantly against drowning). Written by Reto Finger and translated by Lily Sykes, Ben-Aharon previously directed a reading of the play under the auspices of Swiss Stage in 2013. In the intimate confines of the Studio Theater at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, his grasp of the metaphorical, existential themes of Finger's work is evident, enhanced by intelligent character interpretations by Esme Allen, Jeremy Browne, Bridgette Hayes, Ed Hoopman, and Omar Robinson.

Just under an hour in length, Dog Paddle is labeled part comedy, part poetry, which happens to be an apt description of the loves and lives of the five 30-somethings who populate the piece. The action starts with the end of a seven-year relationship between Charlotte (Allen) and Robert (Robinson, BR debut). Although they have just returned from a lovely vacation in the south of France (and he has the photos to prove it), she announces her decision to break up as placidly as if asking him to pass the salt. Little explanation is offered, adding to Robert's incredulity, but Charlotte softens the blow by allowing him to move into the basement until he can find something else. Many developments hinge on this one seemingly inconsequential act, the results of which loom large in the lives of every character.

Charlotte gets involved with two other men, even as Robert's lingering presence sets boundaries around her life and the new relationships. Victor (Browne, BR debut) is a writer who makes a living reviewing porn films, yet has his hangups in the bedroom knowing that Robert is nearby. He is replaced by Johann (Ed Hoopman, BR debut), who has no problem getting up for sex with Charlotte or her needy friend Ingrid (Bridgette Hayes), but has some bizarre ideas about the best way to show love. For her part, Ingrid ranges between being overly judgmental of other people's choices and letting go of personal boundaries. Finger explores the challenges of letting go in several different contexts, and Ben-Aharon illuminates the point by having all of the actors remain on the periphery of the set whenever they are not central to the scene.

Allen embodies the cold Charlotte who often seems clueless about the impact her choices have on others, although she is also capable of taking decisive action that she thinks will rectify the situation at hand. Despite Ingrid's flip-flopping, Hayes infuses her with a degree of righteousness that suggests she might be the most normal or traditional of the bunch. Victor doesn't stick around long enough to see more than one side of him, but Browne definitely gives him the hungry, sleazy traits of one who watches too much porn. Hoopman's performance is more layered as Johann advances from Charlotte's euphoric lover to flawed partner and father of her child. Robinson's character is the repository of a multitude of metaphors; if you were to ask how to play a metaphor, my response would be to observe this piece of acting. Robert is stuck without closure in a situation not of his own making, unable to let go of the past that he thought was his present and also his future. Powerless to move forward or climb out of his self-imposed incarceration, his destiny becomes his entombment.

Larry Sousa's minimalist set and powerful lighting design create a shadowy world where a geometric grid that evokes a jail cell is adorned with photographs of happy people in happier days. David Reiffel underscores with music that adds strange tones to the artistic palette, and Charles Schoonmaker's costumes enhance the individuality of each character. Dog Paddle is a challenging play that requires each audience member to experience it through their own lens. Depending upon your point of view, it may be amusing or tragic, realistic or surreal, or an interesting character study of five not-so-admirable individuals. After spending an hour in their company, with apologies to Lerner and Loewe, I'm glad I'm not young anymore.

Photo credit: Andrew Brilliant (Omar Robinson, Esme Allen)



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From This Author Nancy Grossman