Review: ‘The Dog in the Manger’ at We Happy Few Productions

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Lope de Vega, the author of We Happy Few Productions’ current offering at The Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, was one of the most prolific writers in world history. Hundreds of plays and thousands of sonnets, nine epic poems, and even a few novellas have been attributed to his pen.

Tori Boutin, Kiernan McGowan, Natalie Cutcher, and Debora Crabbe. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

The Dog in the Manger (also known as The Gardener’s Dog) is based on a fable. A gardener has his dog guard his cabbages. The dog does a great job and no one can eat his vegetables. After the gardener’s death, however, the dog still guards the cabbages, even though now no one eats them.

In de Vega’s play, the Countess Diana (Raven Bonniwell) has many suitors; she, however, is in love with her secretary, Teodoro (Kiernan McGowan), who is in love with the Countess’ servant, Marcella (Natalie Cutcher), who is also in love with Teodoro.

The Countess cannot admit her love for Teodoro because that would violate the rules of decorum and class; indeed, as the play begins Teodoro has no clue that the Countess loves him, and he and Marcella seem destined for marriage.

The Countess cannot bring herself to condone the marriage of her servant Marcella to the man she secretly loves. Like a dog in the manger, because she must deny love for herself, she will deny it to others.

Hence, we have the analogy; hence, we have the story.

We Happy Few’s production of The Dog in the Manger is indeed a happy one. Intimate and spirited, the fast-paced romp through love in the Spanish Golden Age is guaranteed to lift you out of your doldrums. Characters literally swarm at you from all directions, commedia dell’arte style–minus the masks.

Bonniwell’s Countess lies at the center of this mayhem: like a brooding storm, she doesn’t exude suppressed love so much as puritanical haughtiness.

The Countess’ female entourage of Marcella, Anarda (Tori Boutin), and Dorotea (Debora Crabbe) bubble in extreme contrast to the Countess, with youthful delight in love’s boundless energy.

Cutcher’s Marcella is ferocious in love and, when she is betrayed, ferocious in hate, while Boutin and Crabbe’s other characters, the murderous Federico and Ricardo, the Countess’ farcical suitors, steal the clowns with the most wry and wit awards.

Raven Bonniwell and Natalie Cutcher. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

The Countess’ other servant, Fabio, played by the versatile Charlie Retzlaff, does his best to keep his mistress honest, but to no avail.

The centerpiece of the show, however, consists of Teodoro and his servant Tristan. McGowan’s Teodoro simply cannot decide who he loves, and he flip-flops marvelously without a trace of regret.

Tristan, played with gusto by Louis E. Davis, is the true Italian servant: he’ll do anything for his master and make a bundle of money in the process.

Co-Founder Hannah Todd and Bridget Grace Sheaff co-direct this madcap love feast in a Land of Lovelessness: a land where status determines who marries whom and “whom” has little say in the matter.

The scenic design by Jimmy Stubbs is a world on wheels, with basic lights by Jason Aufdem-Brinke and fun-loving costumes by Moyenda Kulemeka.

I can’t say that Lope de Vega’s The Dog in the Manger has much to offer the modern world other than its sheer madcap delight. For, in our world, neither status nor murder halts the flow of love and sex in any and all directions.

Nevertheless, this We Happy Few Productions’ version on the tale brings that delight in duplicate.

And we are better for it.

Running Time: 90 minutes without an intermission.

The Dog in the Manger plays through December 2, 2017, at the Capital Hill Arts Workshop – 545 7th Street SE, Washington, DC.  For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.