‘Dog Days’: Future Bleak For World, Bright For Opera

James Bobick sang the father in David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s post-apocalyptic 'Dog Days' at New York's Prototype. Production photos from Fort Worth Opera by James Matthew Daniel.
James Bobick sang the father in David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s ‘Dog Days’ at New York’s Prototype.
Production photos from Fort Worth Opera by James Matthew Daniel.
By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK — Since its beginnings in 2013, Prototype: Opera/Theater/Now has grown into an eagerly anticipated, operatic Off-Broadway event kickstarting the new year. One of the most established works presented at the current festival, which continues through Jan. 17, was David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s Dog Days, a dystopian and devastating portrait of a rural American family struggling to survive a war in the not-too-distant future. The original production, directed by Robert Woodruff, with sets and video design by Jim Findlay, had its premiere in Montclair, NJ, in 2012. After performances in Fort Worth and Los Angeles, the unsettling work made its long-overdue New York debut, with the original cast, at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on Jan. 9. (I saw it Jan. 10.)

Lisa (Lauren Worsham) gently closes her mother's eyes (Marnie Breckenridge).
Lisa (Lauren Worsham) closes her mother’s eyes (Marnie Breckenridge).

The work, adapted from a short story by Judy Budnitz, is told from the point of view of 13-year-old Lisa, one of the couple’s three children. It opens as a man in a dog suit comes to the survivors’ door on all fours and begs for food. Lisa treats him kindly, though the rest of the family are suspicious. Food supplies run out, the neighbors disappear, and tensions mount, sabotaging efforts to carry on with a normal life. As conditions become dire, each member faces difficult choices. “What are the odds that I was given this life and not somebody else’s?” sings the mother, never named, as she faces the end.

The overbearing father, Howard, sung by a blustery-sounding James Bobick, grows short-tempered and menacing as frustration over his lack of control overcomes his decent intentions. The mother, touchingly portrayed by Marnie Breckenridge, provides strength and a moral core for her family, even as she is increasingly cowed by her husband and the deteriorating conditions. The two sons, Elliott and Pat, sung by Michael Marcotte and Peter Tantsits, respectively, embody barely contained id as they hang out in the basement, eating stolen rations and smoking dope. John Kelly played the non-speaking part of Prince, the enigmatic man in a dog suit who symbolizes both realism and borderline insanity, and inevitably ends up the victim of the men’s descent into savagery.

Lisa (Lauren Worsham) gently approaches Prince, the man in the dog suit (John Kelly).
Lisa (Lauren Worsham) gently approaches the man in the dog suit (John Kelly).

As Lisa, Lauren Worsham supplied a narrative focus and the drama’s innocent heart, a 21st-century Anne Frank. This accomplished singer-actor wielded a powerful yet girlish voice to trace her too-rapid progression from child into a kind of maturity. In her powerful second-act solo, “Mirror,” Lisa exults that starvation has given her the fashion-model thinness she has longed for; she combines irony, eagerness, yearning, and fear in a bravura emotional showdown. She knows that the end is near. We feel for these people, even while watching their desperate acts.

The musical eclecticism of Dog Days is familiar from Little’s haunting Soldier Songs, seen at Prototype in 2013 (it had its premiere in Pittsburgh in 2006). The nine members of the Newspeak ensemble comfortably negotiated musical styles ranging from traditional acoustic chamber music to minimalism to rock to electronic effects, which provided devastating evocations of the violence and terror of living under attack. Singers are called upon to use an array of vocal techniques, from operatic to belting, crooning, and shouting. Music director Alan Pierson paced the succession of short scenes with an unfailing sense of timing that let well-placed silences sustain the momentum.

David T. Little is the composer of 'Dog Days.' (Photo: Merri Cyr)
David T. Little is the composer of ‘Dog Days.’ (Photo: Merri Cyr)

A few nits to pick: Little’s text setting isn’t always singer-friendly or easy to understand, which was especially noticeable given the amplification both for singers and players (the system needed adjustment) and instrumental writing that at times covered the voices. And I was very glad to have brought a pair of ear plugs, especially for the bone-rattling final moments. But the fierce intensity conveyed raw emotion on a level rarely encountered at the opera. After two hours of the unfolding tragedy, the finale was a white-knuckle, hold-your-breath experience. In a time when millions are fleeing war zones and volatile rulers have atomic capacity, the scenario isn’t impossible.

Dog Days ended its three-performance run on Jan. 11, but several productions running through Jan. 17 offer the chance to discover fresh talent and new directions in lyric theater. One of the more intriguing presentations playing through the weekend is Angel’s Bone, by Du Yun and Royce Vavrek, about two angels who come down to earth and are rescued and enslaved. Another is The Last Hotel by Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh. This Irish production, already seen at the Edinburgh Festival and London’s Royal Opera House, concerns a mysterious woman who hires a couple to assist her in carrying out a disturbing project.

These dark scenarios reinforce the impression that the younger generation of musical creators is not optimistic about the world. Yet, while you may not leave the theater with a spring in your step, this array of powerful new works should leave you hopeful for the future of opera.

Remaining Prototype events take place in venues throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. For information, click here. For tickets, click here.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!