Applause for paws

Above, Christine Dulong and Rosie

Stage Force’s latest production puts dogs in the spotlight
By Charlie Weinmann

Kent Stephens needed an idea. The artistic director and founder of Stage Force wanted to create a new show in the same vein as “The Ragpicker’s Dream,” the company’s annual Christmas show that blends scenes, songs, and dance from a variety of sources. But he was stuck — and then, tragedy struck. Mister Buster, the Norwich terrier Stephens and his wife, Patricia Lynch, adopted just before moving to the Seacoast in 2004, died.

“His loss was a seismic event, as devastating as some humans’ deaths for me, and I suddenly realized I had my subject,” Stephens said.

And so Stephens set about writing “Dogs and Lesser Mortals,” a cabaret-style show that pays tribute to man’s best friend. The show runs at the Star Theatre in Kittery, Maine, March 13-22. In addition to some canine-inspired antics, the show also aims to find homes for dogs at the New Hampshire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Cocheco Valley Humane Society.

All dogs must have their day, and, according to Stephens, canines have been woefully neglected in theater. Think about it — “Cats” was a hit on Broadway, but no one ever penned a sequel called “Dogs.”

stage_JamieAndSkye_BG1Jamie Bradley and Skye

While adoptable pups from the NHSPCA and CVHS will come out to meet audiences before each show, humans will be playing the part of dogs on stage — complete with dog noses and collars. Actor Andy Fling said the key to playing a dog is recognizing how differently dogs perceive reality. The biggest challenge for Fling has been giving his dog character a distinct personality, and keeping the physicality consistent.

“The style of the show doesn’t call for realism so it’s mostly in our focus, how we use our hands, and keeping in mind that smell and taste are the senses a dog uses the most to experience the world,” Fling said.

Switching species is also tricky. “Dogs and Lesser Mortals” has plenty of human characters, too. Fling has roles both as a dog and a human.

“There is a scene … where I play a human picking up the ashes of my dog,” Fling said. “I prep for it by recalling a time when I and my girlfriend at the time had to put our pet down. I’ll admit, though, she was a cat. Just the same, the memory definitely does the trick.”

stage_JessicaAndGambler_BG1Jessica Miller and Gambler

The show covers the full range of the canine experience, from the joy of sniffing everything to a look at a dog’s life in an overcrowded shelter. Songs and poems and stories and scenes tackle the bond between dogs and their human friends, the thrill of chasing squirrels, and death.

“We wanted to reflect the kinetic spirit of dogs and their variety of personality,” said CJ Lewis, who composed original music for the show. “But we also wanted to probe how mysteriously deep, and almost spiritual, these animals are too.”

While the cast of “Dogs and Lesser Mortals” wants audiences to sit, stay, and possibly roll over with laughter, they’re also hoping to find homes for dogs at local shelters. Alaina Goodnough of CVHS said the shelter serves as a safe, temporary home for more than 1,500 surrendered, lost, abused, neglected, or unwanted animals each year, roughly one-third of which are dogs.

“We have no time or space limits for our animals; they are with us until they find their forever homes,” Goodnough said. “It’s wonderful to see a production focus on the positive impact that dogs can have in our lives.”

stage_CJAndPoodleFinalBG1CJ Lewis and Poodle

Stephens said that even though there is an underlying message about the tragedy of homeless dogs, “Dogs and Lesser Mortals” is “first and foremost about laughter over the relationship between two creatures, connected by love, and a leash, and nothing else.” In other words, it won’t be like those Sarah McLachlan commercials that make you feel bad for not adopting a dog.

For Lewis, the play is more than a story about dogs. It is a testament to how we live harmoniously with another creature.

“Over time, we’ve bred them just as we’ve wanted to — really, to be reflections of ourselves, right?” he said. “We love them because we see ourselves in them. And they show us who we are. So, as much as we’re telling the story of dogs with this piece, I think we’re really telling the story of us, too.”

“Dogs and Lesser Mortals” is at the Star Theatre, 120 Rogers Road, Kittery, Maine, March 13 through 22. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25-$30 and are available at or at 207-439-3800.

stage_RyanAndCharlie_BG1Ryan Salvato and Charlie
stage_AndyAndSgtClancy_BG1Andy Fling and Sgt. Clancy