Fifteen Dogs Segal Centre review

Fifteen Dogs and its batshit premise somehow works

Marie Farsi’s adaptation of André Alexis’s award-winning novel is on through April 21 at the Segal Centre.

The premise alone, described as simply as I can, will be off-putting to many. Lifted faithfully from André Alexis’s 2015 Giller-Prize-winning novel of the same name, Fifteen Dogs is about a bet between two Greek gods who wager over what would happen if a group of canines were given the intelligence of humans. How would they fare? What lessons would they learn, if any? 

If it sounds pretty crazy, I’m describing it perfectly. The feat inherent in Alexis’s unusual novel was that he made it work. Extending that hat trick, Marie Farsi brings the work to the stage, currently at the Segal (it’s a slightly modified version of the premiere this production had at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto last year). In a sense, the entire affair was begging for a stage adaptation, simply because of its sheer absurdity, plus its obvious opportunity for plenty of scenery-chewing by the cast. 

Photo by Emelia Hellman

When these 15 animals are granted human-like intelligence, they bust out of the clinic they’re in and head to the park, where they begin to form their own rules and order. Each mutt has their own distinct personality, and each is working out this newfound intelligence in their own way. There are arguments about what direction they should take, and how and if they should reveal their intelligence to the humans they often have to rely on for food and shelter. Alexis mines the possibilities for comedy and pathos well; dogs don’t live very long, after all, and we witness the demise of several of the dimensional characters as we’ve grown attached to them. 

As a play, Fifteen Dogs manages to muster much of the charm and intrigue of the source material, but it does, at over two hours, feel lengthy. I could imagine this work as a snappy one-act at no more than about 90 minutes. Still, there is much here to praise, including set designer Julie Fox’s excellent, economic-yet-evocative set (modified for this production by Bruno-Pierre Houle) to the various philosophical debates the dogs delve into. Those discussions include everything from the meaning of love to lines of dog-authored poetry; they find themselves stuck in a dog-human purgatory, trying to define who and what they are, and what their existences mean.

Fifteen Dogs
Photo by Dahlia Katz

None of this would work at all if the cast weren’t game. And they are, and deserve the highest praise for bringing Fifteen Dogs to exuberant life with the kind of puppy-like enthusiasm it demands. I can’t single anyone out, because the cast of this show (some newly anointed, some from the original Toronto production) are universally excellent, clearly taking joy in playing multiple characters (some both canine and human), shifting gears seamlessly while maintaining our suspension of disbelief in this loopy scenario. The cast personifies the very word ensemble, pulling together every syllable of every line, with each actor seeming as invested in the rest of the cast’s success as they are in their own. And they don’t rely on masks or make-up (thank Dog), but rather on their own keen skills to evoke the nervous energy of pups. Bravo and Brava, a dozen times.

Fifteen Dogs offers up an unusual night for the adventurous theatregoer. If at times the play feels slightly overextended, it remains well worth seeing. ■

Fifteen Dogs continues at the Segal Centre (5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine) through April 21.

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