Much as Disney would have liked to, it didn't own Dodie Smith, who died in 1990 at the age of 94. The book was ripe for a children's-theater adaptation, which is what Glyn Robbins has done for the Coterie's summer selection. Bucking the adage about old dogs, the company shows off a few new tricks.
To bring the mix of dogs and humans to the stage, the Coterie employs the help of puppeteer Paul Mesner. They use a Japanese style of puppetry inspired by Bunraku, in which an actor and a puppet move together. Thus we meet the dog couple Pongo (Will Manning) and Missis Pongo (Katie Gilchrist), who live in London at a place called Splendid Comfort. In addition to their owners, Mr. (Charles Fugate) and Mrs. Dearly (Jessalyn Kincaid), the household is rounded out by the hired help, Butler (Justin Shaw) and the dutifully named multitasker Nanny Cook (Ray Ettinger).
This world is a kind of Eden, until the arrival of Cruella (Peggy Friesen), a garish and manipulative furrier's wife who shows up uninvited for supper the night Missis Pongo happens to whelp a brood of little ones. Though her wig is split down the middle, reading white to the west and black to the east, there's no dichotomy of spirit: She's one evil bitch who is hoping to make Dalmatian skins the hottest new trend in outerwear. Helping in her quest are Saul (Doogin Brown) and Jasper Baddun (Sam Cordes), oafish brothers who drive an ominous black van through the city streets looking to pick up underage meat.
There's a tongue-in-cheek bounce to the show -- until the little Pongos are dognapped. Even with the help of a bobby (Ettinger) and the dogs' personal nanny, Peredita (Lacretta Nicole Ross), the characters are stymied in their search for the missing pups. As game as the cast is, the script grows weighted with exposition that saps the tale's energy and momentum. Only the well-choreographed bumbling of the Baddun brothers gives the second half any verve.
The use of Bunraku puppetry creates a tableau where Manning and Gilchrist are in full view, holding the life-sized Dalmatians by the tails and jowls. Pongo's red collar matches the red stripes in Manning's sweater; Gilchrist wears a blue headband to parallel Missis' blue collar. When the dogs' tails wag enthusiastically, it's because the actors are whipping them about. And the actors' facial expressions animate what the stuffed dogs cannot.
It's hard to understand what director Jeff Church was thinking when he cast Ross, who is African-American, as Peredita, the domestic nanny dog rendered with spots of a different color -- a kind of rusty brown -- especially in light of the Coterie's long-standing practice of color-blind casting. Ross is delightful later in the show, though, when she plays Lieutenant Cat, trilling her r's like Eartha Kitt.
There's something similarly off-putting about de Vil's monologue late in the show, in which she imagines all the ways she can kill the puppies. Friesen's enthusiastic account of various plans is deliciously sick and twisted. But a few kids may go home to nightmares about drowning, suffocating and skinning.
Gary Wichansky's set consists of a pantrylike room in Splendid Comfort; it boasts dozens of butter-yellow drawers, cabinets and cupboards that come in mighty handy for the concluding scene. Art Kent's lighting is especially effective when the Badduns are ensconced in a completely red room illuminated only by the glow of a tiny television; the set hasn't changed its spots -- just its bulbs. And Gregg Benkovich's costumes are like a burst of British invasion. The Dearlys are all tweedy and nubby, and Cruella's garb is a cacophonous chorus of fake skin and fur, as if the London designer Zandra Rhodes had been TiVoing Animal Planet for hours on end.
"Our mission is to do works that aren't done around town very often," Vivone says. "[If] they lean toward the academic, I like to think of them as B-sides, the rarities that aren't touched that often."
Vivone chose Romeo and Juliet because he's drawn to shows that, he says, "deal with male and female identity --where we come from and how we deal with relationships, whether those are opposite or same sex." He adds, "I like the collision of cultures." (For information and showtimes, call 816-454-4566.)
Finally, sympathies are extended to the family and friends of John Henry Redwood, who died June 17 at age sixty. American Heartland Theatre audiences recall his sterling performance last fall in Looking Over the President's Shoulder. In that one-man show about Alonzo Fields, the black butler whose tenure at the White House lasted from Franklin Roosevelt's administration through John F. Kennedy's, Redwood imparted dignity and class to a role that could have been uncomfortable. Audiences who were to see him in the show at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., next year will never know what they missed.