Battle of Black and Dogs
Bernard-Marie Koltès wrote the explosive piece, and the action occurs somewhere in West Africa during the 1970s or 1980s. The playwright, who was French, passed away at the age of 41 in 1989 and Yale utilizes Michaël Attias' fine translation. Robert Woodruff is adept as he directs four exceptional actors.
Riccardo Hernandez' arresting set design brings us, with immediacy, to a construction site. While most of the give-and-take transpires above the stage, Hernandez allows theatergoers to look at a level beneath the flooring, too. Horn (Andrew Robinson) is a white boss in late middle age, who must cover up the death of a black worker. The dead man's brother, Alboury (Albert Jones), appears and addresses Horn from a distance. Alboury wants the body. Horn hopes to solve the problem by offering cash. Horn and his younger "colleague" Cal (Tommy Schrider) have a love/hate relationship of their own. Cal is an abrasive, unsympathetic, out-of-control white man.
The only woman on stage is Leone (Tracy Middendorf) whom Horn hopes to marry. Blonde, attractive and much younger than Horn, she interfaces differently with each of the men in the play. At one point, she responds to Alboury by saying "Your earth is my earth." Middendorf's versatility enables her to channel three distinctive approaches as she relates to Horn, Alboury and Cal. At times it is impossible not to feel for her.
Alboury's presence if not his character is at the center of the play. Each of the white people responds to him in a specific mode. Horn tries to figure his way around Alboury and the request for the body. The older man is condescending and figures, through words, that he can persuade Alboury to listen to him. Cal lacks ethics. Hostile and violent, his approach is alienating but one is compelled to watch. Middendorf's Leone is softer; one wishes a better life for her.
The white manager and his crazed engineer-type sometimes sit at a table where they gamble, drink and do little to gain an iota of empathy from those who observe them. Robinson, as Horn, is skillful. Jones locates Alboury in consistent and convincing fashion.
Tommy Schrider, as the sometimes raving and always driven Cal, is amazing. The role requires physical bravery, enviable discipline, and a fair portion of will. I hated the character but very much admire the actor's ability. Cal is manic, crazed, and sometimes insidious. Schrider makes Cal believable and unavoidable.
Battle of Black and Dogs smacks you in the face from the moment the production begins. Is that, though, for the best? The stage is open for excellent performances and everyone in this ensemble is animated and focused. The play, however, bangs away at the audience almost constantly. It does not allow for much shading or nuance and perhaps, within the context of Koltès' writing, that is an impossible expectation. I found myself most interested in the quality of performance. The show runs for two hours and ten minutes, without an intermission.
Battle of Black and Dogs continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through May 8th. For ticket information, visit www.yalerep.org or call (203) 432-1234.
- Fred Sokol