by Bekah Caden
Echo Theatre Company's most recent production examines the very base of theatre and art; connection. The Found Dog Ribbon Dance follows a professional cuddler, Norma, as she navigates between providing warmth and happiness for a few lonely souls while she struggles to come to terms with her own emotional isolation.
The title is very straight forward - there's a lost dog that Norma, played by Amanda Saunders, has taken in, and a man who does ribbon dancing to the music of Whitney Houston wearing a Luchador mask. He posts the home videos on YouTube. This all sounds a bit ridiculous, and it is, though not overtly so. "Dog" as he is known for almost the entirety of the play, is portrayed by Daniel Hagan in a t-shirt with the very word across his chest. This reveal elicits a playful laugh from the audience as he "barks", plays fetch, wags his tail, and behaves as any dog would.
Norm, the ribbon wielding, Whitney Houston loving man is caught up in his own breed of loneliness that we become painfully aware of once the shock of seeing a man jump around in his boxers wears off. He's dissatisfied with his life, desperate for connection, but awkward in person. So, he attempts to fill his loneliness with anonymous and silly videos he posts on the internet. He's portrayed with a spectacular earnestness and naivety by Steven Strobel.
Norm and Norma slowly, very nervously fall into a sweet romance.
As they step lightly into love, Norma is visited by an array of characters who almost invariably steal the spotlight whenever they appear. She hosts her clients for her cuddling business in her home, and after posting a fuzzy picture of "Dog" is accosted by two high-strung, stressed-out individuals who just want their dogs back. What struck me at first about this rotating cast is that Norma's cool demeanor seems weak and washed out next to theirs', but as the story unfolds layer by tiny layer, Norma's personal demons and feelings of inadequacy are revealed through these over-the-top individuals.
Atwater Village Theatre is an arena theatre, meaning there is a central stage surrounded by seating on all sides. The design uses this open set in a wonderfully creative way with seven different areas the performers interact in. We even get glimpses into what "Dog" is doing at home while Norma is out on a date or running errands.
I had a very profound and personal experience watching The Found Dog Ribbon Dance. Norma struck a deeply rooted chord within me. She says, almost verbatim, things that I've said in everyday conversation about myself and others. I understood her need for connection, and I understood that she couldn't recognize she even possessed that need. I was quite shaken by the end, and almost in tears as one of her clients, Xeno, an old man we see multiple times before he speaks, gives a heart-wrenching monologue about love and sacrifice as he tells the story of his grandparents.
I believe the success in this work lies in the lack of pretension. Playwright Dominic Finocchiaro doesn't aspire to any lofty heights here, he's simply telling a very human story.
The Found Dog Ribbon Dance is running at Atwater Village Theatre through March 12th.
Get your tickets here.
Photos by Darrett Sanders.