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Melbourne Festival Review: Two Dogs

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The vast expanse of the Merlyn Theatre, peppered with guitars, a drum kit, metallic barrels and cardboard cut outs around the periphery of the stage, greets the audience on opening night of Two Dogs, roundly regarded as one of the most popular current works in China and brought to the Malthouse as part of the Melbourne Festival. We’re forewarned: this piece will be entirely in Mandarin and is largely improvised, meaning the subtitles may prove to be irrelevant. Good to know.
 
A two-hander directed by the influential Meng Jinghui and performed with aplomb by Liu Xiaoye and Han Pengyi, Two Dogs comes across a bit like a variety show, combining stand-up, live music – Chinese heavy metal, yes please- improv, satire, and commedia dell’arte. While often straying off on tangents, the narrative follows the journey of two dogs: Lai Fu, the ambitious big brother, and Wang Cai, the little brother and shameless dog, as they both make their way to the city. As we tumble through the chaotic travails of these two hounds, pop culture, ancient proverbs, politics and social cultures become fair game for satire, including a brilliant tongue-in-cheek song about Melbourne’s liveability, poor trains, and ‘temporary PM’. Even the audience members aren’t safe. One poor guy in the front row made the mistake of placing his coke bottle on the stage early on, and ended up being a pseudo-cast member as a result of the frequent roasting in his direction. Latecomers and any unfortunate souls who tried to get up for a toilet break also had the spotlight cast on them – quite literally- as the two seasoned performers toyed with their audience.
 
The great thing is, for a chaotic comic piece with much slapstick and physical comedy at its core, a lot of the action transcends the language barrier, particularly many of the monologues delivered by performer Liu Xiaoye. His tonal delivery and physicality made it hard to follow the subtitles from pure laughter. A lot of what’s said may get missed, and a few audience members may be a bit miffed by this, however it’s worth remembering that Melbourne is a very multicultural city with a huge Chinese population. In some ways, you could argue that Two Dogs is one of the seemingly smartest selections at this year’s festival, as it engages with that multicultural community that otherwise may not be attracted to the festival.
 
It’s also very interesting to see the shoe on the other foot. As English speakers, we have it pretty easy. Watching some of the Anglo audience members fidget and struggle comprehending some of the stand-up was almost as entertaining as the show itself.
 
One thing we know about dogs in general is that they’re energetic, fun-loving creatures. That pretty much sums up Two Dogs: a shit-tonne of chaotic, crazy fun.
 
BY EBEN ROJTER