Crow’s Theatre’s latest goes to the dogs — and that’s a good thing

Insightful play is brilliant adaptation of Giller-winning book

What: Fifteen Dogs
Where: Guloien Theatre at Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Ave.
When: Tue., Jan. 10, to Fri., Feb. 12
Highlight: Acclaimed Canadian actor Tom Rooney’s moving portrayal of a black poodle named Majnoun.
Rating: NNNN (out of 5)
Why you should go: Marie Farsi’s faithful adaptation of André Alexis’s award-winning novel explores what it means to live a human life — through the eyes of 15 dogs who are granted human intelligence. Equal parts charming, moving and utterly hilarious, Fifteen Dogs features an epic story that is thoughtfully told by a knock-out ensemble cast.

Its title may refer to a pack of canines, but Fifteen Dogs reveals more about the triumphs and foibles of the human condition than work with twice as many hominid characters.

Based on the 2015 Giller Prize-winning novel by André Alexis, Crow’s Theatre’s latest play traces the journey of 15 dogs in Toronto who gain human intelligence after Hermes (Mirabella Sundar Singh) and Apollo (Tyrone Savage) make a bet to see whether dogs would be happier than humans.

Alexis’s spirited, and seemingly absurd, story is epic in scale — sweeping across the city and spanning several years — as it follows the motley pack and their exploration of what it means to live with human consciousness.

So, it feels fitting that Marie Farsi, who faithfully adapted the novel for the stage and directs, frames the play as an oral retelling of an epic poem. It begins with an invocation to the gods before the ensemble of six actors takes turns narrating the story and playing each of the 15 canines.

Farsi’s direction is brisk, seamlessly changing locales in an instant on Julie Fox’s versatile, in-the-round set, which draws on an urban landscape with sidewalks, rocks and patches of grass. The city is further brought to life thanks to the sound and lighting design by David Mesiha and Kimberly Purtell, respectively.

Though Farsi’s adaptation follows the original novel almost to a tee, the play feels funnier than the original. Much of the comedy is physical, in the way the ensemble members so completely inhabit their pooch roles.

These are neither cartoonish nor cloying imitations of dogs but rather humanistic portrayals imbued with touches of caninity. Similarly, Fox’s costumes eschew fur and doggy ears for clothes that subtly hint at each dog’s breed. (For example, Savage sports a rumpled grey scarf as the intimidating Neapolitan Mastiff, Atticus.)

Behind the humour, however, there is tons of heart. Alexis and Farsi don’t shy away from confronting complex, existential questions. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a dog? What is love? Like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Fifteen Dogs is very much an allegory — exploring, from a dog’s perspective, how we choose to spend our finite time on Earth.

There’s Benjy (Peter Fernandes), a beagle whose inflated sense of self ultimately leads to his tragic end, and Prince (Stephen Jackman-Torkof, giving a full-throttle performance), a winsome mutt who falls in love with poetry.

But of all 15 stories, it’s that of Majnoun that is the most profound. Fully embracing his new self, he finds kinship with a woman named Nira (Laura Condlln, demonstrating her versatility in various two-legged and four-legged roles) after being rejected by the pack for his humanistic tendencies. As the black poodle, Tom Rooney is astounding, nailing every mannerism and rapturously drawing in the audience with his sympathetic portrayal.

Clocking in at two hours and 45 minutes, however, Fifteen Dogs does feel long, despite Farsi’s engaging direction. As with many plays that contain a multitude of storylines, some threads, undoubtedly, feel less compelling than others. And Farsi’s frequent use of narration, though helpful in delineating all the stories, sometimes creates an unwanted distance between the characters and the audience.

But these are minor quibbles for what is a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be human, through the eyes of our canine friends, and told by a knock-out ensemble.