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behind the scene

Playing an all-seeing, all-knowing dog

Evgenia Eliseeva/ART

Who: Patrena Murray

What: She plays an all-seeing, all-knowing dog in the American Repertory Theater’s “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, and 3)”

When: The play runs through March 1 at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge

For Patrena Murray, it’s a dog’s life.

At the end of Part 3 of “Father Comes Home From the Wars,” Murray scampers on stage as Odyssey Dog, the long-lost pet of Hero, the play’s protagonist. Within a few minutes of shaking, sniffing, and trotting around, the talking dog has not only figured out exactly what’s going on with Hero’s wife and neighbors, she’s delivering the ultimate shaggy dog story of her master’s wartime adventures and news of his imminent return.

“My challenge has been to get as much of the dog’s personality and idiosyncrasies out there, while keeping it light and bright,” says Murray, who stepped into the role last week and performs in the American Repertory Theater coproduction through
March 1.

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Odyssey Dog’s arrival comes at a critical dramatic moment in playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’s epic tale. “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, and 3)” references the classic Greek tale of another hero’s journey, “The Odyssey,” to frame a story that follows Hero, a slave who marches off to war in the service of his Confederate master. At a point in the play when the pressure of waiting weighs heavy on the action, Odyssey Dog’s arrival provides a welcome bit of comic relief. While the audience gets a giggle out of watching Odyssey Dog punctuate her story with an occasional bark of “yip” and “yup,” the character’s speech also fulfills the role of Greek chorus, filling in details of offstage events.

Finding the right balance of human and animal characteristics wasn’t difficult, Murray says. “If you watch dogs, or any animals, you can see their personality traits, and you can see how they check people out and respond to them based on a quick assessment.”

Plus, she says, she has the added advantage of a costume piece that helps her get into character: a loose, fur-like jacket that suggests a dog’s tightly cured coat.

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“There’s something about that coat, just the way it moves, that helps a lot,” she says. “I worked a lot on pacing, gauging the audience’s reaction, my energy, and the suit. I wouldn’t call it choreography, necessarily, but the scene is very tightly knit between the words and the movement.”

TERRY BYRNE


Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.