It’s hard to hear the premise of The Dog Logs (a series of monologues delivered by actors in character as dogs) and not expect something gimmicky. A novelty bit with maybe enough stamina for a sketch or two that would grow tiresome after an hour. Thankfully, Big Dawg Productions and playwright C. J. Johnson understand this expectation on some level and effectively weaponize it to create a truly disarming theatrical experience. Rather than merely a series of dog puns and “dogs be like” humor, the show is a performance-driven play that is just as demanding for its cast as its audience.

All this while never forgetting that it’s a comedy.

As mentioned, the structure of The Dog Logs is a series of monologues delivered by actors in character as dogs, with a few shorter comedy bits interspersed between the monologues. A play entirely of monologues is a difficult concept to execute well. It’s like an opera made up entirely of arias, or a musical where every song is a character song—difficult, to be sure, but if executed well, it’s a singular experience. The Dog Logs manages this trick by establishing a purposeful connective tissue between the monologues. It isn’t just “it’s all told by dogs,” but instead we learn what meaning these dogs’ stories have for us when looked at in totality? The play has a wholeness that each monologue supports and builds towards. In the second act, there’s a monologue by a Rottweiler named Borys who very subtly presents the play’s thesis: “Do you humans understand us at all?”

The Dog Logs is a play frustrated by misunderstanding. The monologues vary in tone, though most are comedic (except for two, Ando the Belgian Shepherd and Borys the Rottweiler, which are dramatic), but all come back to the central idea that maybe people don’t understand dogs as much as we think we do. That we take dogs for granted, or we don’t think they understand the world, that we anthropomorphize them but don’t understand the parts of them that are inconvenient for us. Even some of the play’s comic monologues are heartbreaking as they deal with ideas of abuse through carelessness.

None of this characterizes The Dog Logs as some kind of Trojan Horse, sneaking a discussion about animal abuse into a play that was supposed to be a comedy. The Dog Logs is really funny; the set up and punchlines in a lot of monologues are carefully crafted and the script gives actors a lot of room for physical comedy.

Big Dawg’s staging of The Dog Logs was exceptional. Understanding this to be a performance-driven play, the sound design and set are simple, which gives the actors space to play. The projection screen is used minimally to give the audience a couple helpful visuals, like the real life version of a particular dog breed or an aerial view of a scattered herd of sheep.

Thankfully, Big Dawg’s team presents the actors as dogs in a more impressionistic manner, rather than relying on makeup. For example, James Bowling wore a police uniform rather than a pair of floppy ears to play Ando the Police Dog. Taylor John Salvetti portrayed Blackie the Mongrel wearing a worn shirt with holes and a pair of old jeans. Some of the costuming even communicated plot information: Borys the Rottweiler, whose monologue is essentially his arguing that he shouldn’t be put down, wore a prison jumpsuit.

But in the end, this is a play about performances, and that is where the production really shone through. The actors who played only one role were just as impressive as the actors who played multiple parts. Susan Auten as Tallulah the Afghan Hound and Samson the Labrador was a chameleon. I didn’t realize it was the same actor until I saw the program. Chase Harrison as Borys the Rotweiller only has the one role, but it’s one that, as I alluded to previously, left a lasting impression. I was also struck by Jesslyn Wilson as Sherlock the Beagle, who played the part with a hilarious, barely contained rage as if this small dog was about to explode at any moment. I congratulate both directors Beth Corvino and Tamica Katzmann on what is truly a brilliant effort.

The Dog Logs continues through Sunday, August 20. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.