Dog Days is an excellent, terse, tense, disturbing and new opera, composed by David T. Little with libretto by Royce Vavrek, based on a short story by Judy Budnitz. The work was created for the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University in New Jersey, about 15-20 miles outside Manhattan. The story revolves around a family, and a man in dog costume, played by a raggedly smart John Kelly, attempting to survive through what seems to be either a nuclear winter or war-ravaged land. The setting exists entirely in the family home, extending to the immediate area outside the house.
The family is in as many tatters as the man-dog, and as the days wear on, become increasingly threadbare as their clothes. Primary focus is on the pubescent daughter, Lisa, played by a stunningly effective Lauren Worsham, the only one with humanity left throughout the ordeal - the mother is walking through life, unable to take care of her family, the father is filled with rage and frustration - potentially because of his own failings and stubbornness in keeping the family in the house rather than leaving like their neighbors, and the two late-teen brothers do little more than getting high, masturbating, fantasizing and getting into trouble. Lisa is the youngest of three children, and she attempts to befriend the dog-man, reconcile herself growing into a woman, deal with her hunger and fear, and attempt to maintain an impossible connection with her long-gone closest friend.
The best scenes, development, and exposition were with Lisa. With her, we got to see moments of intimacy which served as pauses in the chaotic and deteriorating family and world - when she was writing a letter to her best friend who she acknowledges would never read the letter, and her initial encounter with trying to befriend the dog-man. Another excellent moment was her harrowing soliloquy into a video camera fitted mirror that projected her image on a screen while she discussed and examined herself, at moments merging the physical elements of new-found womanhood with the results of starvation - such as her bony modelesque visible cheekbones. The videos at other times were used to great effect - showing such images as an air view while a plane dropped a ration-box, and a rifle eye infrared scope, in addition to the mirror scene with Lisa.
Vavrek displayed an uncanny precision in fleshing-out each character: the two boys, sputtering strings of curses at particular moments early on, defiant in mid-late teenage angst and ennui, playing off each other and isolating from the rest of the family, but following in the father's rage-filled final actions; the mother - becoming more isolated and withdrawn even as she attempts to forage through meager and ultimately useless air-dropped government rations or grass remnants in the yard to provide a meal for her family - the only moments when they all converge in an attempt at familial harmony; and the father,trying to keep his family together but whose rage overcomes him to ultimately disturbing ends. But Vavrek was at his best with Lisa - those whispering moments with the letter to her friend and in front of the mirror, countered by her frustration and girlish brattiness captured not only the complexity of a girl growing into teenagehood, but one doing so in the face of familial and worldly tragedy.
The music was core here, and Little's score was powerful, loud, at times wonderfully chaotic, and mostly drove the action forward. Even scenes which began to feel played out recovered in time for conclusions that towered with fierce and pummeling builds that accentuated the drama on stage. A well-worked feature was that the orchestra played onstage, directly behind the action and enclosed within the house with the backdoor and house wall behind them.
The only fault is the pacing and indulgent excess through scenes in the the middle of Act II, in particular when the army captain drops off the two boys and attempts to bargain for their services with the father. Here, the motion halted, scenes were stretched beyond usefulness, taking to long to complete and meandering rather than developing. I would've liked to see the two boys in their attempt to break-in rather than the resultant capture. Moments of the character development could have been explored to a greater capacity than merely showing them plodding through the middle scenes in their decaying state.
Hopefully the limited weakness will be tightened in future performances, which this production greatly deserves. Also, hopefully these two continue to work together increasing their already audacious visions. The art world needs them.