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The Offending Gesture review: Mac Wellman goes wild with Nazis and dogs

The offending gesture in Mac Wellman’s dizzying new play “The Offending Gesture” was the Nazi “Heil Hitler” salute, but it was the Nazis who were offended. In the incredible true story, which historians only recently uncovered, a Finnish businessman named Tor Borg had taught his dog Jackie to raise his paw in imitation of the salute whenever he said “Heil Hitler.” Third Reich authorities were outraged at what they perceived to be an insult, and summoned a meeting with authorities in Finland, a nation that was a Nazi ally.

Click on any photograph by Richard Termine to see it enlarged.

Dramatizing and riffing on this weird incident, Wellman — distinguished professor of playwriting at Brooklyn College; author of more than 40 plays over the past 50 years; co-founder of one of my favorite theaters, The Flea; and pioneer in what could be termed the WTF? school of theater-making – has fashioned a weird, playful, tuneful and often funny play. An all-female cast of eight portrays German officials and Finnish officials but mostly a chorus of “mooncats” and a procession of dogs, especially Kristine Haruna Lee as Jackie, the Finnish saluting canine, and Abby Rosebrock as Blondi, Adolf Hitler’s German Shepherd. (Perhaps needless to say, Hitler actually had a dog named Blondi.) Layla Khoshnoudi portrays Hitler, although not by name; the character’s name is Noble Wolf (which, we’re told in a program note, is what “Adolf” means.)

For Wellman, this is a more or less straightforward account of the story – by which I mean, less (much less) straightforward. At one point, Noble Wolf, hearing about Jackie’s salute, tries to get his own dog to do the same. Blondi politely replies she is unable to do so. Noble Wolf insists. Blondi changes the subject:

Blondi: Why don’t you be a good master and scratch my head.
Noble Wolf: I often scratch your head.
Blondi: Not enough these days. Do you have other dogs?
Noble Wolf: I have serious matters on my mind.
Blondi: You have another dog.
Noble Wolf: Serious matters that you would not understand. Serious matters pertaining to Winston Churchill.
Blondi: You have another dog. Admit it.
Noble Wolf: Blondi. Oh Blondi.
Blondi: Was not my fur luxurious enough?…
…Noble Wolf: Oh Blondi please do not doubt me…
…Blondi: An English bulldog with a face like Winston Churchill.

Later, Jackie and Blondi bond when he (she?) tries to teach her the salute.

Directed by Meghan Finn with music by Alaina Ferris (supplying songs for the moon cats) and a pleasing design, “The Offending Gesture” is threaded with Wellman’s usual supply of puns and comic repetitiveness, as well as the briefest of stabs at current political commentary – e.g. a reference to “another Party of No (some indeed Grand Old Party of No)” — thus trying (and not succeeding) in giving this entertaining play a point.

It may, however, have special appeal to dogs, who are invited to attend (doing one better than Sylvia!). The dog sitting in front of me with its master was an ideal theatergoer — not a peep during the show, and joyful at curtain call.

The Offending Gesture

At the Connelly Theater
By Mac Wellman
Directed by Meghan Finn
Music by Alaina Ferris
Assistant Director: Ilana Khanin
Cast: Catherine Brookman, Starr Busby, Alaina Ferris, Julia Sirna Frest, Layla Khoshnoudi, Kristine Haruna Lee, Lacy Rose, Abby Rosebrock
Set Designers: Christopher and Justin Swader
Lighting Designer: Brian Aldous
Costume Designer: Emily Blumenauer
Sound Design by: Eric Sluyter
Produced by The Tank
In Association with 3-Legged Dog Art and Technology Center
Running time: 70 Minutes, No Intermission.
Tickets: $25 – $35

The Offending Gesture is scheduled to run through January 23.

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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