SALT LAKE CITY — Plan B Theatre Company will soon be touring elementary schools with their adorable new production Ruff, by Jennifer Nii. This play is a sweet and optimistic take on the sad circumstances of two shelter dogs. One dog has been abused, neglected, and abandoned over the years, and the other’s “Nana” has passed away. The two dogs are placed in the same kennel at the animal shelter, and as they share that space, they share a few lessons with each other, too. I attended one of the performances at the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival with my husband and four children (ages 4-10) and we wished it could have lasted longer than 35 minutes.
It began with a small introduction, and some intructions for the kids, setting up the plot and characters. Then the actors stepped into their roles, with some growling and grumpiness from one of the actors, and my four year old got a little scared. But the mean dog vibes were (wisely) never directed at the audience, so the row of small children warmed up quickly. The two endearing dogs were played by Latoya Rhodes (Buddy) and Tyson Baker (Axel). Based on the provided information, I saw Rhodes as a small fluffy white dog you’d hold on your lap; she captured my kids’ hearts with her endlessly wagging “tail” and wide eyes. My 10 year old loved the times when Buddy complimented Axel and he got sort of bashful about it. Rhodes exuded an innocence and hopefulness through her crisp clear speech and questioning expressions. In contrast, Baker felt like a larger and more ragged dog, with his facial hair and grey fold-back-finger gloves. Each actor wore a dog-eared winter hat, as their most “costume-y” piece of clothing. Baker had an intimidating posture, menacing growl, and facial expressions that said both, ‘Go away,’ and ‘Please, somebody, love me.’ He kind of broke my heart.
The play effectively stated that no dog is meant to live in a pound, since the circumstances are less than ideal. But it is also clear that while living in a shelter, a dog can depend on necessities like shelter, food, and a little bit of exercise. Things could be worse, we’re taught, but the dream is always to find a good home. The stage was taped off into a rectangle representing their kennel at the pound, and Baker reminded us of that boundary throughout the play: he thoroughly sniffed the perimeter, he slept with his back tucked into a corner, he walked the front and sides as he faced potential adopters. Director Jerry Rapier created surprisingly varied pacing and staging in that small space. The interaction between Buddy and Axel, and the way they spoke to each other, clearly taught friendship, acceptance, optimism, and strength of spirit. Ruff is more than just a dog story.
There was a short period in the middle of the play when the kids started to get restless, and the quick ending left me waiting to see if the play was really over. Overall, though, my family and I were delighted. The production is refreshingly simple and clever; the actors play canines in such a believable way; and the positive messages it teaches can be appreciated beyond the K-3rd grade crowd.