Rose Afratian harbors a dark secret. This wiry old woman’s shoulders are hunched and her eyes are sunken from ninety-one years of hell on earth, living with a sin she dare not share. Still, this staunch Armenian woman endures. In Alexander Dinelaris’ Red Dog Howls, several chilling scenes and gripping performances make up for a few structural problems. The play is a haunting look at the impulse to survive in spite of – and because of – the pain of the past.
A box of unopened letters from Rose (the stirring Kathleen Chalfant) leads Michael Kiarkos (Alfredo Narciso) on an unexpected journey into his family history shortly after his father’s death. As Michael comes to discover, Rose is his grandmother. She begins initiating the man into his cultural heritage – and opens a wormhole of agonizing memories in the process.
On daily visits to Rose’s quaint Washington Heights apartment, Rose stuffs her grandson with Armenian foods and puts him to shame in arm wrestling, bringing a gentle comedic touch to what could otherwise be an unrelentingly dark play; Ken Rus Schmoll’s direction strikes a careful balance. Yet the narrative ultimately drives towards uncovering Rose’s secret; she gradually gains the courage to disclose a personal history of devastation in the Armenian genocide of 1915 – 1923. Chalfant holds the audience rapt for two particularly striking monologues, relating harrowing accounts of crimes committed in the Armenian Holocaust. Her stern voice worn with years of anguish, Rose sends shockwaves through the theater with her gruesome revelations.
The play loses focus and energy with the sporadic inclusion of Michael’s pregnant wife Gabriella (Florencia Lozano), who feels abandoned when Michael begins to spend all his time investigating his heritage. Lozano gives a fine performance, but the writing could benefit from either fleshing out this character’s dramatic role throughout the play or by tightening the focus to Rose and Michael alone.
New York Theatre Workshop is perhaps too expansive of a space for this play, as well; Marsha Ginsberg’s set is cleanly divided into Rose’s apartment and Michael’s apartment, leaving large swaths of the stage unused as the scenes jump between the two competing spheres of Michael’s life. Despite these few stumbling blocks, Red Dog Howls is a haunting production of an admirable new play.
photos by Joan Marcus
Red Dog Howls
New York Theatre Workshop in New York City
scheduled to end on October 14, 2012
for tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.nytw.org/tickets.asp