Performing Arts

The Little Dog Laughed At Wellfleet Harbor Actor's Theater

The Little Dog Laughed was consistently funny, but held sadness and sacrifice waiting in the wings at all times.

The Little Dog Laughed appeared two years ago on Broadway to great acclaim, and was heralded as a tight and enthralling comedic endeavor and described as a play about the ills—and wonders—of the entertainment industry. It is undeniably an impeccably written show filled with the kind of lines that simply require straight-faced genuine delivery to illicit laughter. But often, it is the kind of laughter that comes when we recognize an important and uncomfortable truth, not necessarily something outright funny. With each actor fully utilizing the richness of these moments, the production of the Little Dog Laughed at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in Cape Cod, directed by Daisy Walker, seemed to reveal as much about basic human nature as it did about the entertainment business.

The play, by Douglas Carter Beane, features cutthroat agent Diane, played with passion, enthusiasm and myopic devotion by Elizabeth Atkeson, who fears her client, rising star Mitchell, will destroy his career by failing to hide his “recurring case of homosexuality.” While in New York for an award’s ceremony, Mitchell becomes romantically involved with a young male prostitute, Alex, who has a sort-of girlfriend, Ellen (Stacy Fischer) but is, in reality, grappling with his own sexuality and falling very hard for Mitchell.

Much has changed politically and socially since the play first appeared on Broadway in 2006, and for that reason, Diane’s heartless insistence that homosexuality is a career-breaker is even more startling. Her character is also a lesbian, and her point of view is made all the more chilling because of Atkeson’s impeccable commitment to the whole truth of her role. Her seamless transitions between a woman who grasps the nuances of human nature better than Jung and power-hungry business without the faintest concern for another human provide the greatest elements of humor in the role. She never once tries to play funny, and is thus captivating.

As Mitchell, Robert Kropf, is so unassuming and charmingly tentative that we almost forget that he, and his character, are actors. His deliberations and waffling make it hard to judge him and make the moments when he jumps into “actor-mode” all the more chilling. The irony is that is Mitchell’s true self is as single-mindedly self-absorbed as Diane’s; his human moments are folly. He’s mirrored by David Nelson as Alex, who enters the stage smooth and aloof, and literally unfolds on a clear, visible and enveloping trajectory throughout the play.

Nelson’s ability to represent these changes both physically and vocally provides the play’s clearest arc, pushing him into the role of main protagonist by the end. He serves as perfect complement as Atkeson, who pulls the audience into her tornado of determination but refuses to budge for anyone or anything. Ultimately, her commitment, as misguided as it is, makes her the only character with integrity.

Under Walker’s direction, all actors make great use of the sleek, modern set, designed by Kevin Judge, which represents a hotel room, restaurants, offices, subways and a grungy apartment in Williamsburg. The hotel room is the featured section, and is done with perfect realism, down the to mini bar. Its vitality makes is easier to believe that two simple stairs downstage represent a subway car. Atkeson’s mobile phone headset, and her fierce concentration make us willing to believe she is New York, LA, on a side walk or a boardroom without much questioning. Overall, Walker has pulled together a remarkably tight piece of regional theater.

And perhaps the intimacy of the setting allowed for even more exploration of the plays nuances. It was consistently funny, but held sadness and sacrifice waiting in the wings at all times. The show’s ability to carry such complexity represents great achievement, commitment and talent from all involved.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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