In one well-paced evening in the Smokebrush Cabaret, Upstart Performing Ensemble introduces Colorado Springs to three first-time directors and a new local playwright in Air Force cadet Jeremy Gingrich, whose A Day with the Dogs gets its premiere production as part of Volatile Acts, an evening of one-act plays.
A Day with the Dogs confronts its audience from a variety of angles, and for that reason, it manages to remain engaging throughout. It starts out as expository theater, loading its audience with information about the ins and outs of dog racing. Two friends are at the dog track, playing a hot tip on a hungry puppy named "Keep the Faith" and letting a $200 wager provide a semblance of motivation. While most audience members may find this introduction to greyhound racing informative and eye-opening, veteran track rats are likely to be disgruntled by inaccuracies and offended by a level of condescension toward their world.
Midway through the one-act, after showing no signs of legitimate character conflict, Gingrich lays a whopper of a complication at the feet of the friends, revealing that one has slept with the other's wife. We move quickly from the stagnant waters of information download to the turbulent currents of character overload. The infidelity and betrayal may be too much to work through within the limitations of a one-act play, but Gingrich shows promising signs in recognizing, if not mastering, the elements of tension, change and resolution.
What keeps the play captivating, however, is the tension maintained on stage under Tony Babin's direction. Mark Foster and Jeff Davidson offer such dynamically distinct interpretations of their characters that we can't help but be drawn in with the anticipation of obstacles to hurdle. Davidson's Steve is the character with the most potential to matter. He enters the play introverted, uneasy, and conservative. He needs an eye-opener, and although the track offers him the opportunity to widen his sphere of experience, Gingrich takes a detour from following through with that aspect of the character's development, focusing instead on Steve's new conflict with his friend Roger.
Foster's depiction of Roger is consistently scumball. Roger's sliding moral scale makes him a dangerous friend to accompany to the track, and neighbors would be well-advised to lock up the women and children when he comes home from work. Foster's performance is filled with histrionics, while Davidson is at the other end of the spectrum in his restraint. Although the characters are suitably distinct to justify this range, the production could benefit from each character moving a few steps closer to the other's intensity level.
Gingrich's script remains in need of discipline and focus. The early riffs covering greyhound minutia, ice cubes in soda cups, the lyrics to "Just My Imagination" and the philosophy of losing are tiresome and aimless. The play feels like an early draft, poking about until it discovers itself mid-way through. Gingrich would benefit from another rewrite, incorporating the play's newfound direction into the environment filled with empty, untapped symbols waiting for their day at the track.
The three remaining short plays come from first-time directors who have recently completed a directing workshop led by Tony Babin. Ashley Crockett leads her cast through a wonderfully acted production of Loyalties. The play is extremely dogmatic, a dramatized debate between a poet and a soldier with a special "ah so" twist at the end. Mickey Templar and Jariah Walker elevate the script with their powerful performances.
Naomi in the Living Room is vintage Christopher Durang, an absurdist family comedy that suffers somewhat from timing problems and misplaced energy. Bread is the most complete package of the evening. A minimalist story told over a loaf of bread in an impoverished family kitchen. Jon Smith and Hannah Rockey make miraculously full characters out of tiny bites of dialogue and John Iozzi's directorial debut is a legitimate coup, capturing his audience with nuance and subtlety.