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Review: Unique Takes ~ Appleford on Stray Cat Theatre's SHEEPDOG

The production runs through March 26 at: Tempe Center for the Arts Studio Theatre 700 W Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe, AZ

Review: Unique Takes ~ Appleford on Stray Cat Theatre's SHEEPDOG

We are again delighted to welcome David Appleford as a guest contributor to the pages of BroadwayWorld ~ as always, featuring his distinctive, well-balanced, and intelligent perspective on theatre. In this case, he shines the light on Stray Cat Theatre's production of Kevin Artigue's SHEEPDOG.

Here now ~ From the keyboard of David Appleford:

All it takes is a moment, a split second, a wrong decision made in haste under unimaginable stress, and a life, possibly lives will be altered forever.

In Stray Cat Theatre's Arizona premiere of the absorbing 2019 play SHEEPDOG by Kevin Artigue, now playing at Tempe Center for the Arts Studio Theatre until March 26th, a young police officer in an interracial partnership - he's white, she's black - answers an emergency call while on duty. He rushes to the scene.

The events that follow may initially be murky in the officer's telling, but the result is undeniably conclusive: a black man is dead, shot by a white officer. Yet later, when that officer relates the event in an emotional, tear-filled explanation to his partner, also a police officer, suspicions can't help but nag. Somehow, something doesn't feel right. Like the policeman's partner who so desperately wants to believe her love, we want to believe his side of the story too. He had to fire; there was no other choice, surely. But there's a sense that, despite the officer's insistence that what he's saying is what happened, maybe the truth is not what we think.

Told in a compact 85 minutes with no intermission, SHEEPDOG is a two-person play seen entirely from the single perspective of Amina (Shonda Royall). Though there are two sides to the story, the narrative doesn't require a second perspective. Because of her training as a police officer, her attention to detail, plus her desperate need to get to the truth of what her partner may or may not have done, we trust her point of view.

Amina's story begins with a sense of urgency the moment the officer enters and talks directly to the audience. It never lets up until the devastating fade. By constantly addressing us, the female officer creates an immediate sense of intrigue. We're not entirely sure what happened when her life partner, Ryan (Devon Mahon) answered that call, and neither is Amina, but as things develop, like any good detective mystery, certain truths will slowly emerge. Clearly inspired by events that have sadly become all too familiar in recent years, new evidence will emerge from an unlikely source, and it's shocking.

The play unfolds in a complex, nonlinear rhythm as Amina attempts to piece together what has happened, reflecting on moments that might shed a light, then quickly moving on if that moment proves to be going nowhere. As if replaying the DVR of her mind, in the middle of a scene, Amina might demand, "Stop," and the moment freezes. "Rewind. Go back to the beginning," and the scene starts again, or we'll jump to an earlier moment that may need a closer inspection. It's Amina's way; a desperate attempt to determine where the pieces of a complicated jigsaw fit but without the benefit of having a picture on the box as a guide.

Incorporating themes of torn loyalties, distorted truths, plus the often-unspoken tensions of being a black police officer while in an interracial love affair with a fellow officer, SHEEPDOG, like Amina's narration, can't help but demand attention throughout the play's brisk running time. When she faces Ryan, determined once again to find out if everything he's saying is the truth, the subject of race continually surfaces. When Ryan asks why she constantly brings up race as an issue, Amina's response is something Ryan has never had to contend with in his career. In her case, "... You're black before you're blue!" It's the play's single most harrowing line.

Playwright Kevin Artigue's dialog is razor-sharp. It's not just the tension-filled dramatic exchanges between Amina and Ryan that keep you glued, it's the earlier, teasing interactions between the couple as they slowly get to know each other that works equally well. She can't believe he's never read anything by writer and playwright, James Baldwin. "You need to take a class," she playfully insists. And he can't believe she doesn't know anything by Pearl Jam.

But as good as the writing may be, a play is never going to work if the cast is not up to the demands of the script. Under Louis Farber's direction - almost all action is blocked downstage before us creating a continual sense of intimacy, even on a wide forum - both Royall and Mahon are exemplary as the young couple whose racial divide is in danger of going nowhere. Both performers flesh their characters to the point where everything said, every action taken, feels natural; nothing jars. Mahon's Ryan remains likable, even when you suspect that events may not be quite what he's saying. And Royall's Amina expresses such a warm heart, it's easy to see why Ryan would fall in love with her.

When Ryan tries to explain what happened on that call, the pain he's expressing, the torment he's so clearly feeling, all ring true. And when Amina sits, riveted in front of a screen replaying certain events of an event she was never there to witness but can now see via a dash-cam, it's not what she's says that breaks your heart, it's the moment of silence as she watches. This is great theatre.

SHEEPDOG runs through March 26 at: Tempe Center for the Arts Studio Theatre, 700 W Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe, AZ ~ ~ 480-350-2822

Stray Cat Theatre ~ ~ 480-227-1766

Photo credit to John Groseclose

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