Review | Laura Money
What would it be like to understand what your dog says? From such a simple premise arises an existential play that examines our relationships with animals, each other, and our own psyches. Bite The Hand by Chris Isaacs is perhaps the most loaded and intelligently titled work circulating Perth. Brilliantly directed by Matt Edgerton and featuring a stellar cast, Bite the Hand appears innocuously funny and wholesome until darker threads are woven into the piece. Through convincing performances that fully suspend disbelief to a stunning set and edgy sound and lighting, this play will stay…..stay…..good audience! Apologies, will stay with you for a very long time.
In a surreal turn of events, Sam (Alicia Osyka) surprises her partner Dale (Amy Mathews) with the granting of family dog Alice (Arielle Gray) with human consciousness. It is something the couple had discussed but Dale hadn’t committed to, so with the help of her brother Wes (Michael Abercromby) she bites the bullet and does it anyway. Dale has been experiencing severe mental health problems and it is implied that she had recently self harmed. Mathews wanders into the living room a little vaguely – she is our vehicle into the bizzare world of Bite The Hand. Isaacs’ script is crisp and honed without any exposition dialogue in sight. Rather than have Wes tell us all what’s going on, Rex bursts onto the scene to show us. Rex, played expertly by Jeffrey Jay Fowler is Wes’s dog. Fowler is energetic and a little hyper, shaking his long hair from his face like fur and adopting the pose and mannerisms of a dog perfectly. However, it is Fowler’s dialogue, tone and expression that cements this brilliant performance. Cheeky, clever, and hilarious Rex flits from happy topic to happy topic like being a ‘good boy’, getting pats, and defending his stick from crows. It’s exactly what one would assume a dog cares about. Abercromby and Fowler have amazing chemistry and are truly believable as master and dog.
Speaking of chemistry, the transformation in Mathews’ Dale is phenomenal when Alice enters her life reborn. Gray gives the performance of a lifetime and is so detailed and exuberant in her performance as the above average intelligent Alice. Her mannerisms are convincing and nuanced, from the little whimpers to the slight aggression, and of course that hilarious bum wiggle. It is her facial expressions and sincerity that are so endearing – rolling around with Dale, Alice manages to elicit a feeling of happiness and uplifting energy in her. Osyka’s Sam is wary but Mathews manages to convince her and Wes that everything is ok. Until it isn’t. Throughout the show, the television in the living room features different artwork on it. A Rorschach Test looking brain scan image assists the audience in navigating Dale’s mental health and headspace. Bryan Woltjen‘s amazing set and costume design intelligently hints at each character’s journey. From the screen that serves as a mental health check in and provides the context for outside settings, to the playful and sinister costuming of Fowler as he takes on dual roles everything is considered. Dale hides under big blankets, all of the actors bounce off the versatile seating, and the outside area hints at something almost surreal and kitsch with its white picket fence, fake lawn, and front door complete with doggy door. Combined with subtle shifts in lighting by Rhiannon Petersen and the fact that there are literal talking dogs, the play does surreal very well.
Every element of Bite The Hand is beautifully considered. It’s an intelligent piece of theatre that is accessible to all. Fowler and Gray are so good at performing as dogs – actually the entire cast is brilliant at it as we see in the moonlight gathering scenes – that they elicit an exceptionally sympathetic response. Gray is phenomenal as the brilliant Alice – an absolute prodigy of a dog who undergoes an existential crisis and calls into question the relationship dynamics between domestic dog and master. The enlightening of Alice is so profound that I’m sure more than one tear will be shed as the play comes to its inevitable conclusion. Osyka and Abercromby enjoy some gritty scenes together and their words crackle and spark around the stage – Abercromby is subtle in his revelation that Wes doesn’t have much respect for dogs or mental health. He shows his true colours in a sinister manner that comes about the closest this work does to being a bad guy. What I really love about this play, is that once all the bells and whistles of talking dogs and the novelty of the piece wears off, it is a heartbreaking exploration of the self and mental health. Mathews is great as Dale, a confused yet not infirm woman back from the brink of mental collapse, and spiraling that way again. She delicately balances feelings of paranoia and hurt with feelings of love and support, often confusing the two.
Isaacs has written an amazing play in Bite The Hand – there is so much going on it should garner a second watch. Subtle, clever, and thoroughly entertaining the final scenes will go down in history as some of the most shockingly memorable moments in theatre – as I’m sure Isaacs is aware of considering the allusion to Sunset Boulevard. So go and be a good boy or good girl and fetch your tickets to this unique show – you’ll have a ball! Ball! Ball!
Bite The Hand is on at Subiaco Arts Centre until 23rd October 2021. You can get your tickets HERE