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Theatre Review by James Wilson - October 24, 2022

Ellena Eshraghi and Olivia AbiAssi
Photo by Ben Arons
Time and space have become glitchy and bafflingly fluid for the young woman protagonist in HOUND DOG, Melis Aker's new play with music in a co-production by Ars Nova and PlayCo. One minute she's in her bedroom in Ankara, the next she's reenacting memories from her childhood, and then in the following she has become her own mother in a moment during her parents' courtship. Either the world has spun off its axis, or that's some powerful Turkish kenevir she's smoking.

Hound Dog (Ellena Eshraghi, who adroitly conveys twenty-something angst), the play's central character, has recently graduated with a degree in musicology from Harvard, and she has come home to care for her father, Baba (Laith Nakli, suitably eccentric). His excessive drinking has caused him recent physical and legal difficulties, which presumably stem from grief over the death of his wife just one year before. Hound Dog, on the other hand, deals with her mother's passing through avoidance and repression.

She finds some solace, however, through her friend Ayse (Olivia AbiAssi, wry and funny). While smoking joints, the two women relive old memories of high school partying, and they debate the benefits of living in Turkey against the drawbacks of the West. Things get trippy, though, when Ayse leaves her friend alone. Hound Dog visits her former high school music teacher, Mr. Callahan (Matt Magnusson, charming), an American-British musician and composer who is writing songs about his recently deceased dog. She also meets Yusuf (Jonathan Raviv, effective in several different parts), her neighborhood's garbage collector who supplies her father with items to bolster Baba's obsession with Elvis Presley (hence, the provenance of the title character's name).

Memories from the past collide with experiences in the present, and Hound Dog seems to be an Alice in a Turkish Wonderland. (Frank J. Oliva's witty scenic design and Tuçe Yasak's lighting efficiently capture the distinctions between the gritty greyness of an Ankara neighborhood with dreamlike reveries. Queen Jean designed the costumes, and the highlight is an Elvis-inspired creation.) Moving in and out of the scenes is a singer (Sahar Milani, who is vocally lush and lovely) backed by a small onstage band called the Flaming Sultans (Maya Sharpe, Mel Hsu, and Ashley Baier, terrific musicians all). Performing songs such as "There She Goes" and "Where It's All Gone," the singer gives voice to the sense of loss and confusion that Hound Dog cannot articulate herself. Hound Dog can only attain inner peace when she takes up the guitar and sings a song that embraces her Turkish background and Westernized viewpoints.

Aker's play movingly depicts the emotional strain between the father and daughter and reflects the political tensions that make Hound Dog's retreat understandable. The friendship between the two women is also rather poignant as they envy what the other has, opportunity for Ayse and stable family life for Hound Dog. The songs with music and lyrics by Aker and the Lazours convey a sense of longing and nostalgia through a folk-pop sound reminiscent of Joni Mitchell. (Avi Amon, Daniel Lazour, and the Hound Dog Band provide the rock-pop orchestrations.)

The play's loose structure can be confusing, though, since it is hard to know what is part of the fantasy sequence and what isn't. Some conversations actually occurred (such as the one in the classroom) and others didn't (such as when Hound Dog cruelly refers to attending her father's funeral when the time comes). In addition, the intermingling of music and dream-like elements gives the sense that HOUND DOG is working under its own system of logic, but it isn't clear what that includes. This is exacerbated by Machel Ross's uneven direction, which does not help some of the show's unbelievable bits, such as when Hound Dog hauls off and smooches the music teacher, who, we come to find out, isn't so dreamy after all.

The production has yet to find a suitable tone. The actors do fine work, but at times some of the performances push a bit too hard, bordering on caricature. Also, since Elvis's spirit imbues the play and Graceland serves as metaphorical mecca, the play tilts toward kitsch. More subtlety certainly would be beneficial. Indeed, the production's broad strokes and underscoring is evident even in the press materials, which state that references to the play must be presented in all capital letters. Even the title seems to be shouting.

Eliminating some of the whimsical excess, the creatives might discover that underneath the suffocating, bright and gaudy, sequined Elvis-cape, there is a wistful and captivating Joni Mitchell-like composition begging to be heard.

Through November 5, 2022
Ars Nova / PlayCo
Greenwich House, 27 Barrow Street, Manhattan
Tickets online and current performance schedule: