Have you ever wondered–can dogs be showpeople? Are canines natural performers who adore the limelight and thrive on the roar of the crowd? Can they take direction? Do they understand the nuances of the human heart and can they convey them with ease and heart-rending authenticity? These are the questions I happily asked myself when I signed up to see Dogprov. For the record, I may not be normal. I asked myself these questions because I saw my two worlds collide (dogs and theater) and I was filled with hope for an emerging genre in dog/human performance. I should premise this with the note that whether you and I consider improv to be theater is a subject for someone else’s doctoral thesis and thankfully not in the scope of this brief review.
The setting was ideal–a dog-centered universe called Barks n Rec (dog daycare and boarding facility with a shopful of charming dog gear). Chairs were set up in the spotless doggy play palace and the house was packed with enthusiastic supporters ready to supply story prompts. The evening began with introductions to seasoned pups Scout and Petey and their five improv humans. There was a furry and spontaneous charm to be had from this show, of course, billed as Chicago’s premier canine improv comedy show and boasting ‘real dogs live on stage’.
The improv skit action soon kicked in. The performers displayed some great dog handling skills. For example, apart from some energetic moments of relocation, the dogs were never coerced into their roles, but rather worked around and responded to. A couch-snoozing hound would elicit coos from the audience, and some amusing redirecting of the narrative, plotline and dialog. Yes, there was dialog between dogs and people. Of course there was. Who among us doesn’t talk to their dog and long for their dog to actually reply? Anyone? Am I alone in that?
The length of the show was the right amount for dog attention spans too, and water bowls were provided (leading up to a piddle episode that surpassed expectations). In fact, most of the humor seemed to derive from the struggles of humans trying to incorporate dog behaviors into their narratives while the actual improv often faltered–perhaps owing in part to the demand of carefully attending to those dogs. A bit like it might be if one were to have a toddler on stage.
Perhaps this can be attributed to the gimmick of dogs as catalysts for improv–maybe there is only so much one can say about a dog licking peanut butter off a microphone, but let me attempt to say it anyway. Yes, it looks funny because the dog is doing something human, and yes, it can also be funny because there is licking of something vaguely phallic happening. But is that funny laughter or is that discomfort laughter? Because isn’t joking about bestiality somewhat the last bastion of taboo in comedy? Maybe not, maybe I missed an era of comedy, but the improv team seemed to have no qualms going there.
There was an entertaining dating skit that did not involve dogs, but rather a bachelorette choosing a date from among three stars, sight unseen–Jake Gyllenhaal, Harry Potter, and Pete Buttigieg. Based on their contextual replies, the performer eventually guessed who each was. But the skit that bombed was when a married couple discussed trying some new sexual activities. Sadly, this couple was one human, and one dog with a human hidden nearby and voicing the dog’s perspective. Ostensibly funny, again, because the dog’s random behavior forces the human to improvise. But also, somewhat not funny, because the act of a human pretending to be married to a dog is an area most people would put in the cringe zone. If you then add graphic and punny sexual banter, it crosses right into creepy.
Chances are the improv team didn’t know how dicey it would become–since improv does have a few random factors to it thanks to audience suggestions and the ‘Yes and…” directive. Perhaps a more experienced team might have seen the conundrum coming a mile away and set the skit up so that the two dogs were having the conversation together (excluding the humans altogether) and it might have been a hilarious outcome for all. It might take a few more shows, some trial and error, and maybe even extra dog training to keep the pups calm while their humans crouched behind things for scenarios like that to occur. Either way, for now the real potential of dog improvisation remains to be truly delved into, quite like that of goat yoga. But we must take a moment to recognize and applaud the genre’s founders for their leap of faith in innovation.
This fledgling troupe at Dogprov may have to work out a few knots in their leashes yet, but with a few more show runs and some marketing to reach a wider cross-section of the dog and improv world, (think of how this could bolster the dog community, fostering and adoption fundraiser galas, etc., and the improv community. (Time to level up the humans who don’t have animal companions on stage!) If so, they will surely find their niche and expand their repertoire and then watch out Chicago, because I smell a hot new trend in improv. And no, it does not smell like dog piddle on a stage. But you’d risk it just to see the show, right?
(Photos provided courtesy of the Dogprov Facebook page where you can also follow them to find out about future shows.)