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Dogs know best

The Art of Racing in the Rain makes South Sound premiere

Marianna de Fazio and Xander Layden. Photo courtesy Harlequin Productions

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At long last, the hugely popular The Art of Racing in the Rain has been adapted for the stage and may now be seen in Olympia at Harlequin Productions. As director and Harlequin co-founder Linda Whitney explains it, "The Art of Racing in the Rain was adapted from Garth Stein's bestselling novel by Myra Platt for Book-It Theater in Seattle in the spring of 2012, where it had a highly successful run.

"Harlequin's staging of the play is the South Sound premiere. This is the story of a family in crisis as told by the dog, a philosophical Lab-terrier mix who longs to be human and believes that will happen in his next life. He is unable to communicate in language with his people but does what he can to help them as they navigate the perils of being human on the racetrack of life. He knows that character is about more than going fast and that survival takes practice and hard-earned skills."

Dogs know best. Or at least that seems to be the point this comic-drama is postulating.

Enzo, the canine narrator, played by Xander Layden, is a philosopher. He has gained human-like wisdom from watching television and listening to his master, Denny (Evan Sullivan), a race driver. Enzo is convinced he will return as a compassionate and successful human in his next life.

Whitney says there are 31 scenes in 23 locations in this play. "So the scenes are stylized and augmented by projected images, sound and lighting on three large screens on the unit set. For instance, we need to move from an apartment interior and transform to the interior of a large craftsman house within seconds, or we go from Denny Creek to a hospital. Several cars must be represented. A trip over a pass through a blizzard is enacted.

"This requires that we shift scenic elements and images and it's all choreographed into the show and, as we don't have a multimillion dollar hydraulic or computerized trap system, done by the cast. But moving a show this way has its charms. Teamwork is always nice to witness. Of the 10 actors in the show, only two, Denny and Enzo, remain themselves. The other eight play around 20 other characters all together. This is a lot of work for all of us, but the outcome will be worth it. It's a deeply felt story about love and fate -- what we can control and what we can't -- and a dog's eternal love for his humans."

Or, as the Harlequin website puts it, "The Art of Racing in the Rain is a captivating look at the wonders and absurdities of human life . . . as only a dog could tell it."

Whitney compares it to the 1995 play Sylvia, also about a dog played by an actor. "It was always clear right from the get-go that the audience was more than willing to accept an actor playing a dog sans furry costume. In Racing, the dog Enzo is the leading character and our primary source of information. This is not a children's story and a cartoony dog costume would badly undercut the dignity of the character. Enzo acts like a dog, but he shares his deepest insights with us as a sentient being."

"Playing Enzo is a fascinating challenge," said Layden. "Stage acting is mostly done through body language, and through rehearsal I've had to essentially learn an entirely new physical vocabulary to express myself with. The part also requires a nice balance between the broad and goofy, and the heartfelt and contemplative. It's been real fun, though. Playing a dog is a really good exercise in not taking yourself too seriously."

Other actors are Marianna de Fazio as Denny's wife, Kaylee Heinz, Elex Hill, Michael Christopher, Christopher Rocco, Austin Bennet, John Serembe, and Carrie Schnelker.

THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, 8 p.m., Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, through March 24, State Theater, 202 4th Ave. E., Olympia, $35, senior/military $32, student/youth $20, 360.786.0151,

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