Off Leash

Carol Ydenberg, Kerry van der Griend and Simon Webb Credit: Mark Halliday
Karen Ydenberg, Kerry van der Griend and Simon Webb
Credit: Mark Halliday

At Studio 16. No more performances.
Posted November 10, 2015

Has opera gone to the dogs? Billed as “a darkly funny fusion-operetta”, the music (composed by Benton Roark and performed live by James Danderfer, Kimberley-Ann Bartczak, Meaghan Williams and Martin Fisk) is less Gilbert and Sullivan and more, I don’t know, Philip Glass? Less music hall, more opera house. I don’t know enough about modern opera to make a comparison but what I do know is that Off Leash is an odd duck.

As we say of mixed breeds dogs, it’s a ‘Heinz-57’. With four actors – only one of which is primarily a singer – playing both dogs and dog owners, it feels like the music should be light and gay and silly. But it’s not. It’s mostly ponderous and not tremendously tuneful.

The story, which ends on, “Let’s all live in harmony” brings four lonely dog owners together, kills off one of the dogs, almost euthanizes another dog in a public dog park and involves a political struggle to save the local off-leash area from developers. Set free, Off Leash can’t decide to pee, poop or throw itself into a puddle.

Kerry van der Griend Credit: Mark Halliday
Kerry van der Griend
Credit: Mark Halliday

Conceived by Lucia Frangione, who also wrote the book and lyrics, the show’s heart, however, is in the right place. At one time Frangione was a two-dog owner frequenting a local urban off-leash dog park. She noticed how, as the dogs ran around sniffing each other and wagging their tails, the dog owners stood silently by. (This is not my experience; quite the reverse. I get an earful about canine anterior cruciate surgery, hip dysplasia and heart worm until the cows come home. Meanwhile our respective dogs are having a gay old time – various ailments notwithstanding.)

Off Leash features Laura Di Cicco as Isola, an uptight exercise freak, and her hyperactive Border Collie, Sasha. Boy, can she wag her tail – Di Cicco, that is. Kerry van der Griend is JB, a recently divorced father of twin boys, and his dog Buddy, a wimpy Bernese Mountain Dog who doesn’t realize he’s a really big dog. Soprano Karen Ydenberg is Carol, dressed like a latter day hippie, and Ruby, her Pitbull cross. Much discussion and plot turns revolve about the unfairness of requiring the muzzling of selective breeds and, as a lifetime dog owner, I have thoughts on that, too. Don’t get me started. Bringing up the rear, literally, is Simon Webb as older gay man Danny and his ancient, Shih tzu x poodle Jacques whose hind end has given out due to degenerative myelopathy, forcing him to get around in a baby stroller. Webb, one of the finest Shakespearean actors around, scoots around Drew Facey’s set like a geriatric skateboarder, belly down, on a four-wheeled rig. He executes it superbly but, good god, has it come to this? All four performers make great dogs from Buddy who blossoms into an alpha dog, to Jacques, who loses his head. Really.

Sarah Rodgers directs for Fugue Theatre. Gerald King designed the lighting. Music director is Kathleen Allan.

Kudos to everyone involved who, good sports that they are, cock their legs, sniff their butts and salivate over doggie treats. Off Leash is all heart but it’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast.

Laura Di Cicco and Karen Ydenberg Credit: Mark Halliday
Laura Di Cicco and Karen Ydenberg