Pink is for little girls. Red is for valentines. Oh, and for blood. Guta Hedewig is not sending any valentines in her devastatingly witty Dog Days, or Nineteen Ways of Looking at a Shrub, and although Ilya Azaroff has provided a pretty all-red set backed by a pink screen, it’s in disarray. Folding chairs, a table, telephone, broom, tea set, phone, books, and more are piled up and tipped over. While Theresa Duhon, Rachel Lynch-John, Kristi Spessard, and Hedewig, dressed in sporty pink outfits (Lynn Marie Ruse was the costume consultant), march around straightening up the mess to the opening strains of a Vivaldi violin concerto, white words flash on the pink screen: “‘It will take time to restore chaos.’ George W. Bush, on CNN, April 2003.”
Hedewig, who began developing this satire at The Yard on Martha’s Vineyard in 2005, must have been collecting and documenting Bushspeak for some time. The gifted German-born choreographer, a New York resident with a career on both sides of the Atlantic, evidently shares the view of many: If malapropisms were an impeachable offense, we’d have uprooted the “Shrub” long ago. In 17 vignettes (by my count), Hedewig and her co conspirators provide a visual counterpart—and counterpoint—to Bush’s fatally screwed-up remarks. Sometimes a quote introduces a scene; sometimes it’s the punchline.
Duhon, Lynch-John, and Spessard caper about; Hedewig follows with a thrashing-on-the-floor solo. Bush’s words to the troops on Air Force One flash on the screen: “I’m the master of low expectations.” The women form a dancing chorus line, constantly shifting places and dropping out one by one. Bush: “See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.”
Theresa Duhon and Kristi Spessard
The structure may sound pat, but it’s full of surprises and a lot of good dancing. Some sections are even lyrical. To a Vivaldi adagio, Spessard sleeps like a baby—feet or butt in the air—within a hastily taped red circle. Lynch-John sleeps in another circle. Duhon and Hedewig watch them anxiously. The introductory quote? “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.” (Can dyslexia be at the root of his policies? Iraq-Iran. That could be a stumbling block.)
Over the course of Dog Days, the four wonderfully expressive women punish or assist one another imaginatively in accord with the projected presidential views on peace and war, doctors, literacy, and guns, plus fish and men as examples of peaceful coexistence. Duhon, as handler, sits behind Lynch-John and reaches forward to manipulate her face, causing Lynch John’s mouth to open and close grotesquely, her eyes to roll; the quotes comes afterward: “I hope you leave here and walk out and say, ‘What did he say?’.” A few scenes, like the aforementioned, are as chilling as they are comic. Duhon and Spessard stand side by side, interlocking their arms and thrusting out their hands in bizarre ways; Bush says, “I’m honored to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein.” In a brilliant bit of acting, Spessard lounges in a chair and silently talks to God over the telephone, adjusting imaginary balls, and reacting with astonished outrage to what is evidently not an approving reaction to Bush’s use of his spiritual father’s name (“God loves you, and I love you. And you can count on both of us as a powerful message that people who wonder about their future can hear.”) Pink balloons descend bearing more unfortunate remarks.
In the final scene, Hedwig attempts to re-position each of the others, whose limbs seem to have turned to concrete. Having forcibly linked them together, she drags them out the door. We’re left with this comforting thought: “As long as I sit in the chair, all future catastrophes will be planned by me.” You can bet on it. And out we go into the night, grateful to Hedewig for making us laugh at our absurd and terrifying predicament, at least for a while.