What starts out as a clever, visually stunning satire of 1950s family sitcoms like Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet turns into something a good more Twilight Zonesque in Rogue Artists Ensemble’s D Is For Dog, now returning to Los Angeles a year after its award-winning initial run, terrific news for those like this reviewer who somehow missed it the first time around.

 Co-writer/scenic designer Katie Polebaum’s picture-perfect blue-and-white chrome, Naugahyde, and Formica kitchen set, Kerry Hennessy’s cotton candy-hued period costumes, Ben Phelps’ and John Nobori’s jaunty original musical score, and Haylee Freeman’s kaleidoscopic lighting design situate us smack-dab in a (colorized) ‘50s TV sitcom world, as do the laugh-track ready performances of Guy Birtwhistle, Nina Silver, Michael Scott Allen, and Taylor Coffman as Mr. and Mrs. Rogers and their seven-year-old twins Dick and Jane, all of the above under co-writer Sean T. Cawelti’s inspired direction.

Behind the façade of this picture-perfect suburban paradise, however, lurk clues that all is not quite right in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

 The Aunt Jemima Pancakes Mrs. Rogers serves her offspring look as plastic as the plates they’re served on, and despite Mrs. R’s assertions that the Maxwell House Coffee she’s brewed for herself and hubby “tastes as good as it smells,” there’s no liquid coming out of the coffeepot spout. In fact the only nourishment any of the Rogers clan seem to gobble up are the multitude of pills that fill the kitchen cupboard, clear ones to ”put pep in their step,” yellow ones to give Jane back her blissfully vacant stare whenever she starts acting odd, and blue ones for Mrs. Rogers’ occasional full-body migraines. The sun may appear to be shining outside the Rogers’ kitchen window, but the outdoor scene that greets the family every morning has a distinctively CGI look to it, and the only sunlight touching Mrs. Rogers’ and her children’s bodies comes from a robot-like radiation-lamp contraption that emerges from a kitchen cupboard every morning like clockwork. As for Mr. Rogers, the paterfamilias does get to go off to work at The Conservation Corporation, however what this corporation might be conserving is open to debate.

 As Dick and Jane’s seventh birthday party approaches, further clues suggest that we may well be in a kind of alternate Rod Serling reality. Rather than send young Dick and Jane off to school, the Rogers have opted for home schooling, with Mrs. Rogers using stick-on felt figures to teach the kiddies about the nuclear war that appears at some point to have devastated the world outside. The only animals the children seem to know about are the shadow hand puppets their father creates for them on the kitchen walls. Add to that the sinister phone calls that have started arriving and the various ways the Rogers have each begun to “go off” and Sitcom Land has begun to look a good deal more apocalyptic by the time intermission rolls around.

 D Is For Dog scored a Best Comedy Ensemble nomination at this past year’s LA Weekly Theater Awards, news that will come as no surprise to those like this reviewer who are seeing the production’s returning original cast for the first time. Birtwhistle gets arguably the most reality-based role, one which allows him to move from Ozzie Nelson good-naturedness to a considerably more Hitchcockian intensity as fear begins to set in, and he is quite splendid at both. Silver is equally memorable as Birtwhistle’s Stepford Wives spouse, her meticulously choreographed, TV commercial-ready performance becoming more and more off-kilter as her life begins to unwind. 20somethings Allen and Coffman have a field day playing the just-turning-seven twins, Allen’s Dick taking his cue from sitcom preteens Beaver Cleaver and Ricky Nelson, a perfect little Mr. Man in training. As for Coffman, the lovely blonde could hardly be more marvelous as fairytale princess Jane, oohing and aahing at everything around her and taking particularly delicious delight in the sound of her name until ….

 In addition to its LA Weekly nomination, D Is For Dog won a much-deserved 2011 Ovation Award for Puppet Design (by Kris Bicknell, Cawelti, Gwyneth Conaway-Bennison, Hennessy, Tyler Stamets, Miles Taber, and Megan Wallace). Production stills remain deliberately “mum” on just who and what these puppets are, and this reviewer will follow suit, the better not to spoil the delicious surprise when puppets (and puppeteers Heidi Hilliker and Benjamin Messmer) make their first appearances in Act Two.

Other creative artists deserving of mention include sound designer Nobori, video designers Matt Hill and Cawelti, prop designer Leslie Gray, assistant director/movement coach Estela Garcia, choreographer Nate Hodges, video animator Nick Kunin, technical director Adam Haas Hunter, assistant prop designer Keith Mitchell, assistant lighting designer Nick Herring, assistant sound designer Noelle Hoffman, and assistant video designer
Muhammad Saleh.

Working backstage are production manager Eva Vieyra Osmand, stage manager Danielle Doucet, and assistant stage manager Brenda Goldstein.

D Is For Dog is that rarity in Los Angeles theater, a play and production so well received in its initial run that it gets to return a year later with its entire cast and creative team intact—an unexpected gift to those who never dreamed they’d get a chance at a return visit and a welcome opportunity for those who somehow missed it last summer to find out what all the hoopla was about. This reviewer fits neatly into the second category, grateful to have finally gotten to see what so many others had already discovered. D Is For Dog is something quite out of the ordinary indeed.

Hudson Mainstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
June 21, 2012
Photos: Kris Bicknell

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