By Tom Titus
1:51 PM PDT, September 16, 2013
You may not be able to fight city hall, but you can holler until you're blue in the face like the inveterate pet cemetery owner in Thomas Strelich's wild and crazy but strangely affecting "Dog Logic," now on stage at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
Whether all the ranting and raving accomplishes anything is, ultimately, beside the point in this quirky comedic drama, first unveiled at South Coast Repertory a quarter of a century ago. Strelich is taking up the banner of the individual in his quixotic struggle against the forces of commercial progress and urban sprawl.
"Dog Logic," in actuality, is more "dogmatic" in this uneven yet engrossing tale of Hertel, who tends his late father's decaying animal burial ground, which also contains his dad's remains - stored there to pose a legal defense against land grabbers. And they're out there, waiting to pounce on this potential gold mine of a property and turn it into a shopping mall.
Hertel's problems aren't limited to outsiders like the would-be real estate agent who flits like a mosquito around the grounds. His conflicts extend to his ex-wife, a police officer who's duty-bound yet strangely sympathetic, and his mother, who walked out on Hertel and his dad 30 years before and hasn't been in contact with her son since.
The role of the central character, Hertel, is an awesome assignment, here tackled with passion and gusto by Keith Bush, who rides the lightning of Strelich's opus in fits and starts. There is certifiable madness here, certainly, yet Bush strives mightily to convince us there's a true method behind it, one worth fighting tooth and claw for.
Under the meticulous direction of Sharyn Case, Bush crafts and forms the eccentricities of his character into patterns ranging from logical to outrageous, pausing at every stop between these extremities. It's a tremendous accomplishment that succeeds where the script often fails, bringing this troubled character into dynamic focus.
As his law-enforcing ex-wife, Kaye, Carrie Theodossin lends a contrasting note of sanity and reason, pledging her concern for Hertel's welfare but not enough to rekindle the romance. She convincingly represents the audience's link with the outside world, a foreign element in Hertel's ever-spinning universe.
Hertel's long-absent mother, Anita, who has moved heaven and Earth (religion and real estate) since her departure and become quite wealthy, is depicted by Kay Richey. Whether her concern is familial or financial isn't readily apparent, and Richey conveys her character with contrasting colors.
The weasel-like real estate speculator - actually a janitor with oversized ideas - is given force and bounce by Alex Dorman, who flashes dollar signs in Hertel's eyes, though to no avail.
This animated character seems an anachronism in the semi-rural setting of the junky pet cemetery.
This property - the creative clutter of the garage and rear yard - is beautifully imagined by set designer Ryan Linhardt, who also created the nicely subtle lighting effects. There was a mini-blackout in the opening scene of Saturday's performance, which may or may not have been scripted.
Audiences at Friday's performance will be invited to join in a post-play discussion with the director, the cast and the playwright.
"Dog Logic" often defies logic in its strident presentation - its main character clearly belongs in a rubber room - yet its rustic charm and offbeat humanity shine through in a wonderfully involving production at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
What: "Dog Logic"
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 6
Cost: $16 to $20
Information: (949) 650-5269 or http://www.costamesaplayhouse.com