Before anyone calls the ASPCA, let me say right up front that Broken Dog Legs, the one woman show written and directed by Emily Conbere and starring Penny Pollak, does not harm any dogs. Rather, “broken dog legs” is a metaphor that reflects one woman’s journey (“SHE”) through therapy as she confronts issues dealing with her distant father, her dizzy mother, her lost-to-suicide brother and Citibank.
Emily Conbere is a poet — that’s obvious. Her poetry comes out in her words, her staging and her direction. At times Ms. Conbere seems to be channeling Ani DiFranco, so honest and forthright are SHE’s scenes of dispair, of hope, of boredom, of rage … of confusion. When Ms. Conbere hits the mark, it’s brilliant. There are moments when her imagery is so evocative as to be almost holy — she captures the purity of sentiment and lets it hang there for the audience to absorb. Unfortunately, she doesn’t always hit the mark. And when this happens, the alliterations seemed forced and strained, the metaphors obvious and almost tedious. Ms. Conbere falls into the trap of playing with language and imagery so much that some of her scenes come off more as a recitation than as an unfolding and this doesn’t do justice to the obvious places we could be taken, if we weren’t suddenly taken on a word-spree. Still, there’s no denying that Ms. Conbere is a talented writer who is palpably in touch with the human schism.
If there was one outright problem I did have with Broken Dog Legs it was the textbook conflict-resolution setup of some of these scenes … Dog Therapist says “Go confront your daddy issues”, “SHE” goes and confronts her daddy issues. Dog Therapist says “Go confront you mother issues”, “SHE” goes and confronts her mother issues. The scenes that sing the most are the ones that arrive to us without this setup; where “SHE” simply appears and takes us through her daily personal crusades (enter Citibank).
I also found a distraction in naming the title character “SHE”. It’s one thing to keep a character nameless in order to keep her more universal, that’s understandable and even applaudable. But when a sentence starts with “SHE, I have something to tell you …” it actually accomplishes the opposite, localizing her down to a pinpoint … she might as well be named Apple Paltrow. A technique of throwaway nicknames might have been more effective here, and might even have driven home her lack of identity even more, as the people who meander in and out of her life could simply refer to her as the generic “honey”, or “baby” or the more impersonal “girl” or “now listen here, you”.
Particularly effective in the staging of Broken Dog Legs is the use of projected images along the back wall. Mostly black and white with a splash of red (a color theme echoed on the stage), this device takes us to the few places beyond the stage that are necessary to the movement of the story, effectively transitions us from one place to another, or driving home a stark reality. Sometimes static, sometimes moving, these images add a dimensionality to the piece, as well as another layer of metaphor.
If I may stretch the metaphor myself here, this is a one-woman show and I think there’s a reason for that beyond simple austerity; an isolated woman on the stage can’t be mistaken for anything more … she is an isolated woman. As with any one woman show, a lot is asked of Penny Pollak and she delivers remarkably well, twisting her way through scenarios, characters, accents, emotions, and props. She is a bit wobbly at first when transforming into her mother; what starts out, at least to my ears, as Long Island Yenta quickly transforms into Frances McDormand in Fargo by way of Edith Bunker. However, once Ms. Pollak settles, it’s consistent. Similarly, her Black Lab therapist starts off Ghetto Fabulous but soon enough is Generic Southern, reminiscent of Colonel Shuffle (“Belvedere! Come here boy!”) — again, once she settles it’s fine. Meanwhile, neither of these small shifts in any way detract from the overall flow of her wonderful performance; she is engaging, charming, and remarkably vulnerable, doing great justice to this play.
Broken Dog Legs is playing at UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place between 1st and A) until January 31st, Friday & Saturday at 8pm.