It takes some effort, but once you get past the weirdness and pitch darkness of the premise of “The Dog, the Night, and the Knife,” the story and situation start to haunt you, like a friend’s description of a particularly odd and suggestive nightmare. German playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s three-hander script, adeptly translated by Maja Zade, coolly depicts the collapse of societal norms into a chaos of all-against-all violence, like the world as imagined by gun-toting survivalists. Director Michael Rogerson and the cast and crew of the youthful Silencio troupe stage this literal dog-eat-dog tale with elegant, imagination-rich simplicity, reminiscent of Kafka at his most enigmatic.
“Dog” begins on an empty, anonymous street, as the nameless protagonist (Hal Cosentino) leaves his friends after dinner and finds himself in a place turned menacing and unfamiliar. He’s accosted by a stranger (Tom DeFrancisco) whistling shrilly for his missing dog, which he suspects may have joined the wolf pack that roams the city. Realizing that the newcomer is lost and helpless, the dog owner slashes him with a knife, explaining that he, like everyone else, is hungry to the point of homicidal cannibalism. Enraged, the wounded victim wrests the weapon from his attacker and stabs him fatally, establishing a pattern that recurs throughout the play with “Groundhog Day”-style regularity. The injured man then finds shelter with a woman (Sazi Bhakti), who seems concerned and protective but also more than a little creepy, warning her guest that he must not awaken her sister, who is dangerous and not at all like her. Of course, as in dreams, fairy tales and horror movies, the first thing he does is to rouse the sister, who is played by the same actress, but this time as a bloodthirsty ghoul.
And so it goes, as supposed helpers and authority figures—cops, doctors, nurses, lawyers, all portrayed by the same two performers—present themselves as allies, only to morph into carnivorous or sexual monsters who must be slain. Meanwhile, the digital clock reads an unchanging 5:05—a coded “SOS”—as the night of horror continues. The final encounter is with the missing dog from the opening, who talks quite intelligently about the joys of wolfishness as he tries to persuade the protagonist to renounce his humanity and join the pack.
Performed in semi-darkness in a bare loft space without even a stage, the play reveals the power of theater when pared to its rawest, most primal elements. The actors themselves wield the lights, creating shifting shadow effects and pools of clarity that emphasize the surrounding blackness. The audience is situated on both sides of the narrow, aisle-like performance area, close enough to the action to be splashed by the frequent bursts of water mimicking blood.
If the play is a parable, as it seems to be, the author leaves it open to the viewer’s interpretation. Maybe it’s a paranoid psychotic episode, as the hero finds himself among cannibal creatures so alien they lack even a navel and hence a mother. Or perhaps it’s an extreme caricature of the bureaucratic personality, civil on the outside and generically cold, hard and power-hungry within. The play’s stance is as murky as the lighting, as the hero or antihero shifts from victim to aggressor from moment to moment, leaving a trail of bodies behind him without questioning his own innocence. It’s not until he softens his attitude of militant self-defense and connects to another human being that a new day finally begins to dawn.
The plot, such as it is, is as deliberately repetitive as it is grim, a cycle of serial betrayal and revenge that comes off as a gonzo parody of tragic dramaturgy. Director Rogerson—aided by space and lighting designer Sean Gundersen, costumer Jasper Drummond and sound designer Sam Graves—keeps it interesting, sculpting the surreal events into an atmospheric mood piece that raises heavy-duty questions about what sort of world we live in, psychologically and spiritually, and how it can be transformed into something less bleak and bestial.
The three cast members play off each other well, illustrating the point that the freakiest situations require the most contained, earnest performance style. DeFrancisco and Bhakti manage to make each of their half-dozen or so parts both similar and different, to uncanny effect. Cosentino is solid in the lead role, conveying a mixture of disorientation and suppressed anger.
“The Dog, the Night, and the Knife” won’t be to every theatergoer’s taste, but those open to the offbeat and experimental will find much to absorb and ponder in this audience-challenging play. With this production, the unheralded Silencio company announces that it deserves to be heard. (Hugh Iglarsh)
Silencio at Fulton Street Collective, 1821 West Hubbard, silenciochicago.com, $10. Through December 22.