The script for “Dog Paddle (or, struggling inelegantly against drowning)” is remarkably spare. The dark comedy, which opens Bridge Repertory Theater’s fourth season at Central Square Theatre, contains little or no stage directions and has only suggested locations.
“That’s what makes it so much fun to work on,” says actor Omar Robinson. “It’s a blank canvas we get to play on.”
Robinson plays Robert, a 30-something who, as the play opens, is being dumped by Charlotte, his longtime girlfriend. Although Charlotte has abruptly decided it’s time to move on, she allows Robert to live in the apartment, but he must move to the basement. At this point, “Dog Paddle” veers sharply from a plot befitting a sitcom into some delightfully surreal territory.
“Playwright Reto Finger crafts the perfect game,” says director Guy Ben-Aharon. “There is a solid dramatic arc, but he doesn’t spell anything out, allowing us to take a leap and explore what the play space can be.”
Robinson and his costar, Esme Allen, who plays Charlotte, say they know little about their characters.
“I know Charlotte owns a ski suit, but I don’t know what her job is,” says Allen. “I know she likes rules, but understanding her motivation for the breakup is a mystery.”
Robert, for his part, remains in denial about the breakup and continues to live on in the basement, acting as a voyeur as Charlotte dates new men or talks to a mutual friend.
“Robert has to be part of the space even when he’s not in the room,” says Robinson. “There’s an energy to his persistence, and it’s fun to see what the limits are.”
Bridge Rep’s production marks the American premiere of “Dog Paddle,” but it’s not new to Ben-Aharon, who presented a staged reading in 2013 under the auspices of the Consulate of Switzerland. That reading grew out of Ben-Aharon’s experience organizing readings of contemporary Israeli plays for his company, Israeli Stage, and his work with the Goethe Institute staging contemporary German plays. Originally written in German, “Dog Paddle” was translated by Lily Sykes.
Ben-Aharon is interested in contemporary plays from around the globe, and he’s eager to find the right home for them. ArtsEmerson produced “Ulysses on Bottles,” with Israeli Stage, and he’s had a great success with a touring production of “Oh, God,” which was co-produced with the Chester Theatre. He never takes any production lightly, often spending three weeks on a workshop before going into rehearsal. Even his staged readings feature actors who are fully engaged rather than simply reading at music stands.
“What I love about working with Guy is that he trusts simplicity,” says Allen. “He encourages us to experiment and makes us feel a sense of ownership over the production that results.”
Allen, who has been a member of Bridge Rep for several years, says the company had talked about the script for 18 months or so, and kept coming back to the unexpected nature of what could have been a very simplistic story.
“So many contemporary plays are rooted in a very naturalistic world,” says Ben-Aharon. “But that doesn’t ask audiences to use their imaginations. We’re not film, and theater has to fight against that impulse. ‘Dog Paddle’ is a great example of a play that can only work in a theater and needs the audience to play along. I think different people will come away with different ideas from the evening.”
Withers, Hughes in Gloucester
Brendan Hughes and Brenda Withers, two talented writer-director-performers, will appear this month at Gloucester Stage Company’s NeverDark series. Boston native Hughes, now based in Los Angeles, will perform his hilarious one-man show, “The Pizzicato Effect,” an attempt to understand the universe by surfing the minutia of the Web, on Aug. 9. Withers, a prolific playwright as well as an actor and director, will have a reading of her newest work, “String Around My Finger,” about a couple coping with a miscarriage on the eve of their wedding, on Aug 23. Tickets and more information: 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com.
The curtain behind the curtain
Built in the late 1800s, Northampton’s Academy of Music is an arts and entertainment destination in Western Massachusetts. It’s home to the Pioneer Valley Ballet and Valley Light Opera and hosts performances by the Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra, as well as other concerts, theater, and film. During a 2014 restoration of the theater, the nonprofit discovered a historic, 1913 stage curtain — it was stapled to the back of a velvet drape — and will spend much of August working with Curtains Without Borders of Vermont to preserve it. The 40-by-30-foot curtain features a local landscape painted by Maurice Tuttle. A public unveiling will be held Sept. 13.
Presented by Bridge Repertory Theater. At the Studio Theater at Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through Aug. 20. Tickets: $10-$32, www.bridgerep.org
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.