Review: KILL SHELTER At Theatre of NOTE

It's a Dog's life at Theatre of NOTE

By: Sep. 12, 2023
Review: KILL SHELTER At Theatre of NOTE

Give those dogs a bow. Or maybe a bow wow!

There are three puppet dogs each of which makes a memorable appearance in Ashley Rose Wellman’s KILL SHELTER at Theatre of NOTE. Fetchingly designed (sorry, couldn’t resist it) by Emory Royston, these life-sized puppets are constructed out of white wrappings and look a bit like mummies. They are extremely expressive – a testament to Royston’s work and also to the three cast members who operate them – and, tear-jerkers though they most certainly are, the pups are the best thing about Wellman’s play.

The human beings of KILL SHELTER? That’s another story.

A mother-daughter tale that traffics in regrets, dreams deferred, selfishness and the value of all lives human and animal, KILL SHELTER barely elevates the contrivances of its plotting. A larger problem in this four-character world premiere is the casting, which – at least as regards the Blue Cast (the production is double cast) – is lacking.

The play’s central figure is Colleen (Nadia Marina), a long-time and therefore indispensable worker at an overstocked Sacramento animal shelter called Northside. Unlike the more popular Helping Paws, Northside is overstocked because it accepts all animals no matter what the circumstances. This means that to make room, they periodically have to euthanize animals who have been long time residents and have little hope for adoption. Colleen does a lot of the killing and she’s quite good at it – sensitive, soothing and gentle. As she imagines the doomed pups talking to her, explaining their unfortunate situations, she calms them like the the merciful angel of death that she is.

By every measure, this is an awful job that is now taking a serious toll on her mental and physical well-being, but Colleen is stuck with it. The single mother of 17-year-old Ellie (Chloe Madriga), Colleen is 34, barely making ends meet and as she watches her daughter’s choices, and thinks about how she might have lived her own life differently. Mother and daughter are very close, although the arrival of Ellie’s new boyfriend Nolan (CJ Craig) seems destined to throw a wrench into things. The classmates met in the Life and Liberty Club of which Nolan is president. With Nolan’s persuasion, the two decide to make a campaign out of turning Northside into a no-kill shelter. Colleen, who has long explained to her daughter why this can’t be, now has to fight the battle anew. And she also has to watch as Ellie starts rebelling.  

KILL SHELTER has one other character, Brady (Alex Hogy), a UC Davis student and aspiring vet who is interning at Northside under Colleen’s supervision. She calls her 21-year-old intern “baby boy,” but Brady doesn’t see himself that way.  Colleen and Brady get closer as Nolan and Ellie are hooking up. The action unfolds within the same tightly-packed shelter room, stacked to the rafters with cages and files that also doubles for Colleen and Ellie’s studio apartment. Colin Lawrence’s evocative and nicely-rendered set makes both places hugely uninviting.

Although much of the action is instigated by other characters, the play hinges largely on ColleenThis is a thorny character whose unquestionable love for her daughter doesn’t keep her from passing judgment on Ellie’s choices (and, subliminally, also on her own). Wellman may be content to make her heroine a selfish lout, but Marina doesn’t really know how to embrace that or convincingly kick against it. There are a few true moments she shares with Madriaga’s Ellie, but mostly the actor comes across as lost. The relationship with Hogy’s Brady makes sense in the context of Colleen needing to grasp onto something, but, again, Marina and Hogy seem off-sync with each other.

An event happens in this play that triggers the central conundrum of the play; you can probably guess it. Wellman is asking what are we to make of a woman who didn’t end her own pregnancy when she had the chance, and now earns a living putting down animals in the name of compassion and bureaucratic practicality? And what do we think of a woman who gives the animals she ministers to kinder treatment than her own daughter? In a more thoughtful and better acted play, these questions might have made for a richer evening.

As it is, KILL SHELTER traffics in squirm, particularly when one of those puppet pups makes an appearance (each one operated and voiced by the three other company members). Dog-loving play-goers will likely find these scenes disturbing, as no doubt Wellman and Rosenthal intend them to be. The fact that we care significantly more about what happens to dogs than about anything else that happens is, ultimately, the play’s death knell.

The Red Cast features Ashley Romans, Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson, Brandon Warfield and Jack Clevenger.

KILL SHELTER plays through October 1 at 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood.

Photo of Alex Hogy and Nadia Marina by Julie Lanctot.



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