Heart of a Dog

Streamed through Toronto Fringe Next Stage Theatre Festival

Bahare Ahmadi

Joe Szekeres

An intriguing modern take on the Frankenstein tale

Director Mohammad Yaghoubi has adapted Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, “Heart of a Dog” set in Russia. The Toronto Fringe website describes this adaptation as comical. More about this in a moment.

‘Heart of a Dog’ tells the story of Sharik (Aida Keykhaii), a stray dog that is turned into a human by successful surgeon Professor Preobrazhensky (Neta J. Rose). The professor takes the pituitary gland from a corpse and places it into the dog, thus making Sharik human. Note the connection to Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’.

Sharik (also referred to as Sharikov) tries to navigate life under the Soviet state as a human in conversations and actions with others. In this English premiere, the most crucial change concerns the performance of Sharikov who will be performed by a woman. This would not be possible in Iran where a woman’s body becomes a political matter.

Yaghoubi has previously staged productions of ‘Heart’ in Iran but there was a struggle with censorship issues. For example, when ‘Heart’ was staged in Iran, Yaghoubi asked all the actors to wear scarves to criticize the compulsory wearing of the hijab by the dictatorial code of the state for Iranian women. Even though the story takes place in Russia, this adaptation exposes similarities of totalitarian states of two countries with ideologies that contradict each other which ultimately result in the silence of freedom of speech and opinion.

Now living in Canada, Yaghoubi fulfills his creative vision for this piece and can direct it in any way he feels it would do justice to the story.

I do like stories of political meshing which weave throughout the plot. I found it fascinating how Yaghoubi makes several political comments and statements in this production, sometimes overt and sometimes subtle. Although I don’t know a great deal about Iranian deportment, I am aware of a few things. For example, I do know that Iranian women must wear the hijab while the Iranian men do not. In this production here, I’ve noticed that the male characters who enter and exit the apartment are wearing hijabs which would not be allowed in Iran.

‘Heart of a Dog’ gave me my theatre fix as the production is filmed on a stage where the actors play to an unseen audience. Productions that are normally filmed for camera are not broad in performance level, but in ‘Heart’ director Yaghoubi ensured the energy level remains up which certainly kept my attention directly focused on the briskly moving plot.

Several performances deserve mention here. I was most impressed by the body contortions of Aida Keykhaii’s in her performance as the stray dog. Just as the Creature in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ could not function in the world into which he was born, Keykhaii’s effectively used her voice in several octaves to show she was not comfortable in this world into which the dog was born. The closing tableau scene between Sharik and the Professor was quite moving.

Neta J. Rose as the Professor believably shows and reveals the upper- and lower-class distinction of Russian society especially in their treatment of the maid Zina (Melanie Grace). Grace provided brief but welcome moments of humour. As Doctor Bormenthal, assistant to Preobrazhensky, Siavash Shabanpoor visibly becomes a strong link of support, defense, and rational calm for the Professor.

‘Heart of a Dog’ is heady stuff for me, sometimes poignant and sometimes horrific, and I’m pleased playwright Yaghoubi made me pay close attention. But why is this a comical adaptation? I guess it’s the word ‘comical’ that made me pause. I mentioned earlier how Melanie Grace provides brief moments of humour in her performance to enhance the mood, but what else is comical? Is it the fact the playwright now feels he can do justice to stories where he couldn’t before? This is a question I would most certainly like to ask the playwright.

Final Comments: A literate and cerebral play, ‘Heart of a Dog’ becomes one of those plays for me that might require a second look to understand further how timeless this story becomes as we emerge from this pandemic.

Running time: approximately 90 minutes

‘Heart of a Dog’ produced by Nowadays Theatre Company for Next Stage Festival.

Based on the novel, “Heart of a Dog” by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Adapted and directed by Mohammad Yaghoubi with translation by Mahsa Ershadifar and Mohammad Yaghoubi

Lighting designed by David DeGrow

Composer: Farshad Fozooni

Videographer and editor: Peter Riddihough

Performers: Ali Ghorbanian, Melanie Grace, Aida Keykhaii, Neta J. Rose, Yury Ruzhyev, Aylin Oyan Salahshour, Siavash Shabanpour

Runs until February 13, 2022. Visit https://fringetoronto.com/next-stage.

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