'Heart of a Dog,' a Parable
On the Ills of Soviet Society
By MEL GUSSOW
© 1990 by The New York Times
| Mikhail Bulgakov's novel "Heart of a Dog" is a malicious political parable on what the author envisioned as the inevitable corruption of a socialist state. Written in 1925 (and unpublished in the Soviet Union until 1987), the book follows the rise and fall of a mongrel scientifically transformed into a man but unable to avoid the curse of atavism. Behavior that is acceptable, even ingratiating, in a canine is indecent in a human.
In Deloss Brown's freehanded adaptation, which opened last night at the CSC Repertory, the story is broader and more farcical than the original, but remains faithful to the heart of "Heart of a Dog." As amusingly incarnated by Jace Alexander, a dog-man named Poochkov brings his gross appetites intact into the supposedly civilized world he momentarily inhabits. The actor and the character have bite as well as bark. Because of his determinedly antisocial actions, he clearly deserves his fate, a return trip to the origin of his species.
There are some losses in the novel's metamorphosis to the stage. Though Mr. Brown uses the dog as narrator, as Bulgakov did, he shortchanges the sour sweetness of the animal's wanderings on the streets of Moscow, where he fearfully tries to avert life's kicks. Too suddenly, the title character is a guest in the home of a professor, and an unwitting victim of his surgical experimentation. As played with increasing exasperation by Bill Raymond, the professor is more a nutty doctor than the gentlemanly though Frankensteinian genius of Bulgakov's imagination.
Mr. Brown and his director, Robert Lanchester, move Bulgakov close to French farce -- reminding one that one of the Russian author's best-known plays is "Molière in Spite of Himself." In this variation on "Heart of a Dog," the professor's assistant becomes a comely French-style maid (fetchingly played by Anna Levine, under her new name, Anna Levine Thomson) who has designs on the professor's lecherous medical colleague (Anthony Fusco).
Although Mr. Lanchester's direction and some of the performances are not marked by their subtlety, the production retains the work's sense of mockery. Tom Kamm's tilted scenic design adds a note of absurdism to the fable. The performance focuses, as it should, on the title character, a role that Mr. Alexander portrays with aplomb.
After his initial mangy appearance, he exchanges his dog suit for the hirsute, looking unkempt and unshaven. He is especially funny in his moments of dogged ingratitude. The canine equivalent of "The Man Who Came to Dinner," he quickly overstays his welcome in the professor's house. At first he slurps from a glass, but soon adapts himself to drinking vodka straight from the bottle. Frequently he rests his leg on the furniture, assuming a pose that is half-dog, half-Harpo. A self-proclaimed theoretician, he is dogmatic in his didactism. Anything he does not like he labels as counter-revolutionary, including the theater (he prefers the circus).
At the mention of the word cat, he loses what remains of his wits. When the professor pleads for humanity toward cats, Poochkov can only respond: "Cats aren't people. Cat are pigs." It takes one to know one. Naturally he will find useful employment as the Director Of the Purge Section, eliminating stray felines from the city.
Though there are unnecessary Leninist jokes, the adaptation takes advantage of Bulgakov's more general socialist satire, as in the officious tenants' committee, which crams nine people into one apartment, insisting on everyone's equal right to he uncomfortable. In Bulgakov's counter-revolutionary indictment, proletarianism lies down with fleas and literally goes to the dogs.
The rise and fall of a mongrel that
science has made a man, sort of.
Humane SocietyHEART OF A DOG, by Deloss Brown, from the novella by Mikhail Bulgakov; directed by Robert Lanchester; scenery, Tom Kamm; costumes, Jane Eliot; lighting, Mary Louise Geiger; sound, Daniel Schreier; production stage manager, Debora Kingston. Presented by CSC Repertory, Carey Perloff, artistic director; Dara Hershman, acting managing director. At 136 East 13th Street.
Natasha Petrova............Gwynne Rivers
Zina....................Anna Levine Thomson
Sonia..........................Mary Beth Kilkelly