‘The dog as a narrative’ by Suzana Marjanić (Zarez, cultural biweekly)
About homeless performer dogs and a trained pedigree-actor Collie Cap
Thus, as the theatrologist Nicholas Ridout points out, in the realm of theater economics the strangeness of an animal on stage does not arise from the fact that it does not belong there but from the fact that we suddenly foresee that there is nothing strange in an animal being on stage, that in fact the animal can also be used there just like a human performer.
It seems to me that Montaigne’s question “When I play with my cat, who’s to say whether I’m entertaining it or it is entertaining me?”, which,as Tillyard emphasized, might act subversively on educated Elizabethans, and could be applied to the dog Cap, a pedigree border collie, main, but also the only scene-bound actor in the play Timbuktu, whose subtitle definition is “a monologue for a dog on stage spoken by an actor in the audience”, hence, as a play which makes visible on stage the brazen dichotomy between the soul/spirit, i.e. the actor’s voice, in this case the voice of Sven Medvešek, and the canine, and in this case the only performing body – Cap, the dog in the role of Mr. Bones from Auster’s novel Timbuktu, that is – colloquially, as the dramatization puts it, in the role of a canine mixture, a cocktail – Kosta. In truth, the play itself has an ironic relationship toward its own synchronization, for which the dramatization says that it is not “the best of solutions, reminding a little of kung fu films”. Certainly, this is ironic, because as Cap’s coach, Alen Mareković, puts it when asked how aware Cap is of this unusual situation he was put in – his own acting, performance – on the scene of a theater?:
“Even though I could with all responsibility claim that there is no acting there, but that it all comes down to a series of tasks to perform in his head, I still have a feeling that he really knows that he’s ‘acting’. His interaction with Sven’s voice, his anticipation of the up-coming scene sometimes even fascinates me.”
Furthermore, it seems to me that in the moment when the iron curtain falls, and this is the very end of the play, that is, in the moment when homeless dogs from the City Shelter for Abandoned Animals in Dumovec appear behind that iron fence, and the pedigree collie Cap moves toward the proscenium as trained, according to the command of his coach Alen Mareković, we receive through this animal existences a visible definition, a determinant of differences between performers and actors. The homeless dogs, dogs who might possibly be adopted via this play – of course, if there’s an open soul in the audience – perform as performers, or as Sven Medvešek puts it – they are not actors, they are real dogs. So let’s listen to the determination of those canine entities as Sven Medvešek describes them on scene:
“They are real mutts, real homeless dogs. These dogs are not acting, they don’t know they’re in the theater, they don’t understand why you’re watching them right now. They are not trained, they have no pedigree, no master, nothing, but they do have a story much like Kosta’s.”
The scenes that follow when these homeless canine performers appear are urinating, barking, running, playing, rolling around the stage because it doesn’t mean anything to them. Furthermore, there was lovemaking involved; a dog wouldn’t be bothered to freely make doggy-style love with the mate of his choice. Although, one does see the realization of the previous metaphor, because the stage literally starts to mean something to these canine performers, considering the possibility of being adopted. The play opens a humane option of adopting the twelve dogs from the City Shelter for Abandoned Animals in Dumovec, an opportunity for a new happy ending, making the theater directly involved in the destinies of these performing dogs, hence –theater does literally mean life for them. I found out later from Alen Crnčan from the Friends of Animals association, who participates in the realization of the play as one of the stage guides for the mentioned homeless dogs, that by the last performance they had managed to find a home for only three dogs out of the twelve homeless performers on stage.
Cap as a working dog
Unlike the said performers who thought the stage was just another suitable territory to piss on, the canine actor – a pedigree sheep dog, a border collie, as Sven Medvešek put it – is not here on stage alone because his coach is sitting in the first row, and Cap unmistakably transforms his movements into working, acting tasks, thus becoming an animal counterpart to the actor, Sven Medvešek as a, let’s say, normative actor in the mainstream theater. Still, the determinant of difference between the two actors is impressed; namely, while Medvešek is here – on stage of a theater according to his own conscious decision to submit to a very strict training of memorizing text and physical expressions, on the other hand, Cap is which ever way we put it, as an animal submitted to the laws of working, acting training, where we cannot be certain whether this unique animal entity participates with its own will in the shaping of a performance about the canine destiny of Auster’s Mr. Bones. Thus, as the theatrologist Nicholas Ridout (Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems, 2006) points out, in the realm of theater economics the strangeness of an animal on stage does not arise from the fact that it does not belong there but from the fact that we suddenly foresee that there is nothing strange in an animal being on stage, that in fact the animal can also be used there just like a human performer. Still, regarding the ethics of the play which is subject to the possibility of adopting homeless dogs as making the sad existences of homeless humans, people without a permanent address and with a temporary shelter in Heinzl Street, visible – let us remind that these twelve people volunteered to participate in the realization of the monologue-play – then Cap’s working education, thus, not – handling, is annulled and I start to see the play Timbuktu as one of my personal favorite theatrical projects.
Let’s see what Alen Mareković, the pedigree shepherd dog turn actor, Cap’s, trainer says about the manner of training with Cap and how different the performance training is from the usual so-called handling of dogs, that according to some is necessary for the socialization of dogs in everyday life:
“We began our rehearsals for the play back in May. Cap knew from before most of the things Borut had in mind. Still, for example, running in circles and the removal of the American flag was something that he needed to be taught. But, I think someone’s experienced eye can notice that this part of the play was his favorite. That means that we’ve done a good job. Actually, I always joke that Cap keeps thinking throughout the play: ‘flag… flag… flag’. I must admit that the term ‘handling’ creeps me out a little. It reminds me of those poor animals in the circus. Or when someone says that they’re breaking in their child. I’d say I work, train and educate my dogs. The biggest difference between the basic training, that is, a dog trained for a normal (co)habitation in an urban environment and an advanced education, that is, a working dog, is in the duration of concentration a dog is capable of keeping. A working dog must be able to concentrate on a task, or its owner, for a lot longer, in order to successfully cooperate with him.“
The American flag or a paper bag floating in the wind
So, the American flag going down to the musical matrix of the ironic song America (We’re all living in America) of the group Rammstein, is the stage metonymic of the myth about the fake and transparent Coca-Cola American dream, the myth of corporate capitalism, symbolized in the American Family, which adopted Mr. Bones after Willy’s death, whose false, sugary-Disney-like life Mr. Bones – Kosta, finally found savior from by committing suicide on the highway, in a game called „Dodge the car“ in order to join Willy, a man with a dog’s heart, post mortem. At that, each and every member of the audience was ironically met by the omnipresent plastic bottle of Coca-Cola on the seats of the stage on Scene Travno, considering that this is also one of the sponsors of the said adoption-theatrical project, but one must not forget that this is also a corporation often related with the violation of human rights. To be more specific, when the song We’re all living in America starts to reverberate the stage, Cap the dog starts to run around the stage within his trained working task, barking in a very agitated and loud manner, and at the moment when an American flag is lowered from one of the ramps, Cap hides behind the curtain of the American dream while his head peeks behind this flag-curtain of corporate capitalism as a puppet, he finally sharply, madly, barely restraining himself – tears it down with his teeth, letting it remain rumpled on the stage like a stinky canine cake, lots of which will later be left anyway by canine performers on this pissing territory. So, at the moment Mr. Bones, Kosta, who Willy believed to be an angel trapped in a dog’s body, meets the American Family, he gets to know the other side, the dark side of America – the one from the myth about the American dream, which he himself amazingly differentiates with the example of a paper bag floating in the air. With Willy he used to watch a bag floating in the wind for hours. Willy called it poetry, and Daddy Dick, from the American Family called it garbage.
Let’s stop for one more moment on the first scene that anticipates Kosta’s final suicide in order to realize a postmortem reunion with Willy and entrance into canine paradise Timbuktu, in which dogs can probably communicate with their human friends. So, in that scene in the beginning, Cap is sitting on a darkened stage on his hind legs, while around him remote controlled cars angrily speed to a vehement musical matrix, which is a marvelous anticipation of his final suicide, off stage, on a six-lane superhighway.
Paradise for homeless dogs and humans
The said play was determined by Borut Šeparović along with Jasna Žmak, the dramaturgist, as an engaged play, formed by Paul Auster’s namesake novel, which brings a devoted story about a love between a homeless person Willy, who is a man with a dog’s heart, a promoter of the philosophy of kindness, who only fantasized about leaving the world a better place than when he found it, and his dog Mr. Bones, who Willy deeply believed was sent to him directly from above.
So, I repeat: even though I am ethically vexed by the use of animals even as subjects in theatrical plays and performances, the morality of this play that speaks up in the name of human and non-human homeless, fills me with absolute joy and a renewed belief in engaged art, an art that directly penetrates life; an engaged theater which portrays that it is indeed possible to perform locally, which might finally open the possibility for all those abandoned dogs to be adopted, something I sincerely hope for. Aside from that, this is a theater that openly speaks about our fruitless reality in which, unfortunately, most of us have no sense for others – those who are sick, powerless, abandoned, lost, those we see clumped up like dogs on our park benches. Or as Ivan Mašina, one of the homeless, said, in a statement for the press – before he was accommodated in the shelter in Heinzl Street, he loitered around Maksimir “bench No. 8, bush No. 4”, adding that unlike him, even dogs have guardians.
Of course, in one of the utopian demands of this engaged play, it would be desirable that all these homeless humans and animals find their own social paradise, a hither Timbuktu. Or, as the monologue-play Timbuktu quite accurately diagnoses in the end: „Dogs don’t talk, but there are people who understand them“.
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- October 30, 2008 / 2:40 pm