In the opening scene of The Found Dog Ribbon Dance, a world premiere play by Dominic Finocchiaro currently being presented by the Echo Theater Company, a man wearing a Lucha mask uses a webcam to record himself dancing, with ribbons, of course, to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston. This quirky moment sets the tone for a heartfelt, occasionally silly story straight out of a romantic comedy that achieves surprising emotional depth while exploring the topic of loneliness.
Directed by Alana Dietze, also responsible for Echo’s extraordinary Dry Land, the story follows Norma (Amanda Saunders), a professional cuddler who lives, naturally, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Before the start of the play, she finds and takes in a lost dog, played hilariously by a human (Daniel Hagen) wearing a t-shirt that reads “DOG.” Through a series of vignettes we see her meet with cuddling clients, who range from Dave (Eric Gutierrez), a repeat customer and recent divorcee, Harrison (West Liang), a high-strung businessman, Trista (Clarissa Thibeaux), an 18-year-old struggling with her mental health, and Xeno (Gregory Itzin), an elderly man who remains completely silent during sessions. At the same time, Norma also has people dropping by who are potential owners of her found dog, including Colt (Gabriel Notarangelo), a grumpy teen, and Miranda (Julie Dretzin), an overworked mother at the end of her rope. Meanwhile, in the primary storyline, Norma develops a flirtation and eventual relationship with Norm (Steven Strobel), an endearingly awkward barista who challenges her to accept happiness, something she has largely closed herself off to after a heartbreaking past trauma that is hinted at throughout and finally revealed in the play’s final moments.
The Found Dog Ribbon Dance is nearly bursting with whimsy, but beneath the silliness of Norma’s profession and Norm’s ribbon dances and the surrealism of having a human play a dog, Finocchiaro’s script has a strong emotional undercurrent. Every character in the play (yes, including the dog) is deeply lonely, and desperately looking for some sense of companionship and belonging, whether through a paid cuddler or a pet or taking a chance on dating. While the sheer number of characters who appear for only one scene is surprising, nearly all of them make an impact in their brief time onstage. Loneliness comes in many different shapes and sizes, and through each interaction we begin to get a clearer sense of the issues Norma herself is coping with.
Saunders gives a lovely performance in a difficult role that demands incredible poise with just the tiniest visible cracks revealing the deep pain that lies underneath. Everything she does is very controlled until it’s not, which makes one very warranted and painful outburst all the more shocking. Strobel is very likable as the quirky leading man to the point where you can forgive his many dating faux pas. Like in any good rom com, Norm and Norma (of course those are their names) are just crazy enough to work, although life is rarely that simple. Other standout performers were Itzin, whose final scene with Norma brought tears to my eyes, and Hagen, who perfectly mastered the mannerisms of a dog, particularly in the looks he’d give the humans, to great effect.
This play snuck up on me. While the first two thirds of its tight ninety minutes are often played for laughs, embracing the lighthearted nature of the fairly ridiculous situations taking place, it is all setting up quite the emotional wallop of an ending. Despite wishing for more closure in one particular subplot involving a canine, I found myself quite moved. All of the characters are dealing with significant wounds and emotional baggage, but there is also a strong glimmer of hope—hope that those, both human and animal, who feel irrevocably lost can be found again. Maybe it’s the current political climate or the generally gloomy feeling that often accompanies January, but this heartfelt, sweet story struck a chord. Sometimes genuine, relatable emotion is all you need to be effective, and The Found Dog Ribbon Dance has that in spades.
The Found Dog Ribbon Dance runs at the Atwater Village Theatre through February 26th. Performances are Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm. Tickets are $34 (only $20 for Monday performances) and can be purchased at www.echotheatercompany.com.