Theater Review: Shakespeare Theatre's 'The Dog in the Manger'

Michael Hayden and Michelle Hurd are fetching and engaging as lowly Teodoro and inscrutable Countess Diana in
Michael Hayden and Michelle Hurd are fetching and engaging as lowly Teodoro and inscrutable Countess Diana in "The Dog in the Manger." (By Scott Suchman)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Love may blow hot and cold in "The Dog in the Manger," but the rewards on this revelatory evening are absolutely consistent. Regardless of the temperature, this is a production that always cooks.

The latest offering by Shakespeare Theatre Company is an adaptation of a comedy by Lope de Vega, the 16th-century dramatist whose mind-boggling output (reputedly more than 1,000 plays) helped lay a cornerstone of the Spanish Golden Age. Working from David Johnston's crisp, superbly contemporized script, director Jonathan Munby fashions a smashing entertainment, a show about crafty people that positively brims with craft.

The play looks and sounds so marvelous in the Lansburgh Theatre, you may end up demanding a more committed relationship to this classical playwright rarely produced on American stages. The ardor intensifies because Johnston and Munby have thoroughly plumbed the text for buoyant theatricality -- and laughs. The comedy and characters manage to seem of their own time and ours. No small feat for an obscure tale of so long ago and far away.

The actors, too, appear to have been matched especially keenly to their roles, from Michelle Hurd's fetchingly inscrutable countess, Diana, the aristocratic catch over whom the men fawn and spar, to Michael Hayden's fervid secretary, Teodoro -- whose hopes for attaining Diana are dashed, raised and dashed again. As Marcela and Fabio, the household attendants whose own romantic fortunes twist in Diana's fickle fingers, Miriam Silverman and James Ricks prove to be appealing, pointedly effective foils.

And then there is David Turner, a comic actor making as auspicious a debut with the company as I have experienced. Last seen in these parts as a priceless Sir Robin in the national tour of "Monty Python's Spamalot," Turner this time portrays Teodoro's lowly sidekick, Tristan. That the role is made for mischief means that it's also made for Turner.

Could someone sign this man to an ironclad contract? (There is something wrong with a universe that hasn't found a prominent perch for him.) In a scene out of another golden age -- classic television sketch comedy -- Turner plays a disguised Tristan, pulling the wool over the gullible eyes of old Duke Ludovico (David Sabin, doing a lovely comic riff himself). Turner must pretend to be a Greek merchant (or is he Armenian? Tristan's forgetful) while wearing an oversized turban and a fat suit.

Yes, you're right, it could be insufferable. Turner and Sabin, though, make of the scene a delicious, lopsided match of wits. Tristan improvises a ludicrous story about Teodoro's past, designed to convince the duke of a patently ridiculous connection between them. Which Sabin's dupe of a duke swallows whole. At the point of the duke's payoff line -- "My heart tells me this is true!" -- an audience finds its bliss.

With his canny set designer, Alexander Dodge, Munby, who formerly was an assistant director with the Royal Shakespeare Company, envisions a luxe Neapolitan lair for Diana of handsomely ornate wooden screens. It's the kind of environment in which love easily hides from view. The gist of "Dog in the Manger," which takes its title from a phrase that means someone who denies things to others even though she doesn't want them herself, is Diana's on-again, off-again passion for Teodoro. He's taboo by reason of his lowlier station. And yet she has a hard time keeping her mitts to herself. The plays takes dips again and again in that reservoir of sexual tension.

Wearing a mask of pinched resolve, Hurd brings to Diana the mystique of one exotically unattainable; the sharp angles of the gowns by designer Linda Cho neatly accentuate the severity of her attitude. This allows her moment at the very end of Act 1, when she is dressed in red and clutching a bizarre memento of her feelings for Teodoro, to seem all the kinkier.

Hayden applies a welcome patina of charm to Teodoro, who remains in our good graces even as he mistreats Silverman's poor Marcela, whom he repeatedly dumps and woos, depending on Diana's changeable inclinations. As his snootier rivals for Diana, Jonathan Hammond and John Livingston Rolle ably play decorous fools, each a clown in his own self-parodying way.

What separates Munby's "Dog in the Manger" from the volumes of other mixed-up romances of yore is the magnitude of inspiration. It's evident in so many facets of the production: the use of a troubadour soprano (Julie Craig) to create a haunting interior soundtrack of lovers' insecurity; the devising of a sexy dance to physicalize passion. You know the collective imagination has been working overtime when even the funny way a character utters an epithet has you thinking: How great was that!

The Dog in the Manger, by Lope de Vega, translated and adapted by David Johnston. Directed by Jonathan Munby. Lighting, Matthew Richards; composer and sound, Richard Martinez; choreography, Daniel Pelzig; voice and text coach, Ellen O'Brien; fight director, Brad Waller. With Leigh Wade, Joel David Santner, Wesley Broulik, Stacey Cabaj, Amanda Thickpenny, Leo Erickson, Nathan Bennett, Billy Finn, Dan Lawrence. About 2 1/2 hours. Through March 29 at Shakespeare Theatre Company, 450 Seventh St. NW. Visit or call 202-547-1122.

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