UNO Theatre has unleashed its season with a marvelous and clever play in which a dog tells a tale. Shakespeare’s Dog to be precise. He’s named Hooker, and all this world’s his stage. That stage comes alive with vitality as the twelve-member cast fills it with colorful detail.  

Rick Chafe’s script, derived from Leon Rooke’s novel, stays full of complex, evidently period-apt and therefore archaic language, delivered with well-trained accents and inflections which, for many of today’s audiences … us…may not come across all that clearly. When I attended, with the action speaking louder than words, many truly funny moments made laughter resound all around. But, often, when the humor was verbal, it seemed that few people were getting it. Particularly when Hooker … wonderfully and vigorously personified by Michael Juarez … spoke his lines trippingly on the tongue. 

The essence of the story seems easy to follow. Stratford’s young Will Shakespeare dreams of having an acting career, but has yet to see success. No one believes that he has talent. Not Hooker. Not his wife Anne, who keeps insisting on his earning their keep. But tavern owner Davy Jones, urges him to write a script for a local production, believing that, when speaking, Will has a gift with words. A producing actor arrives in town for whom Will comes up with several scripts that show promise, although needing work. Throughout Hooker is always at Will’s side, encouraging him, trying to help him. Actually the dog’s life has its own complications, supplemented by interactions with four other local mutts.  In fact, at times the play seems more about Hooker than Will. Verily, why not? Peruse the title.

Director Jack Zerbe has filled the doings with action and charm, for example, by having Will and Hooker play together like man and canine friend. Hooker leaps and romps delightfully in every nook and cranny of Robbie Jones’ remarkable, superb set. Zerbe has also gotten fine performances from his actors, full of definitive personality with Ryan LaHood and James Hodge doubling quite skillfully. Moreover, Zerbe’s staging of the randy interchanges and intertwining by the two-legged and four-legged characters most definitely grabs one. Plus Melissa Valdez’s expertly rendered costumes enhance the look and feel of the play’s period.  

Chafe and Rooke give lots of wonderful wink, wink, nudge, nudges to all us Bard-lovers with clever references to Hamlet, The Comedy of Errors, R & J’s balcony tryst and more.

Characteristically the program book gives no information about any of the participants. Although some members of the cast don’t look like students, there is no way of telling. As for director Zerbe, he’s part of the UNO Theatre Department faculty. Long time a director and performer, he’s appeared at Shakespeare festivals in Chicago, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and Lake Tahoe and also directed at some of them. While on the faculty at North Carolina’s Guilford College, he directed more than 30 productions and taught acting, directing, theatre history and cinema.

Regarding the inevitably overlooked writers: The play premiered in 2008 in Canada where Chafe lives. He’s had three other plays produced there: The Secret Mask, Strike! The Musical and The Odyssey (a Homer spin-off, of course.)

North Carolina-born Rooke, who also lives in Canada, wrote the novel in 1981. He’s published at least 40 books: novels, short stories, poetry.

The dog does have his day.

Shakespeare’s Dog runs through October 8 at UNO Theatre, Weber Fine Arts Building, 6001 Dodge Street. Weds.-Sat. 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $5-$16. UNO students: free.

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