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‘Dex & Abby’ stars learn the trick to playing pups

‘We decided to take qualities of dogs and humanize them,’ says the movement director who helped two actors go canine.

The cast of “Dex & Abby” features Jesse Montoya and Josh Pablo Szabo (back row) and Daniel Vaughn Manasia and Chesa Greene (front row).
The cast of “Dex & Abby” features Jesse Montoya and Josh Pablo Szabo (back row) and Daniel Vaughn Manasia and Chesa Greene (front row).
Heather Mall

Furry rascals, faithful pals, vigilant guardians, gobblers of leftovers and constant companions, dogs have lived among humans for thousands of years. Long before humans figured out farming, prehistoric dogs wandered with our hunter-gatherer ancestors, initially eating discarded scraps of meat before gradually becoming an integral part of our society as the first domesticated animal.

Today, over 89 million dogs live in American households alone. Yet Bailey, Bella and Fluffy have been not just fun friends to have around but, for better or for worse, integral to how humans live — and how many humans live — on the planet today. “There are archaeologists today who believe that we would not have evolved how we evolved if not for dogs evolving with us,” says actor Daniel Vaughn Manasia.

A certified master groomer and lifelong dog owner who has taught courses on the co-evolution of humans and dogs, Manasia puts his expertise to work in Allan Baker’s “Dex & Abby,” in its Chicago premiere by Pride Films and Plays. Written in 2011, the play tracks the pains and pleasures of a couple moving in together through the eyes of their dogs, elderly pitbull-pointer-boxer-lab mix Dex (played by Manasia) and Rhodesian Ridgeback runt Abby (Chesa Greene).

“Interacting with dogs every day, especially in grooming, where we don’t always know their history, sometimes we need to make some assumptions or deductions based on how they act or react,” he says. “But getting those behaviors and thoughts and feelings and how they would talk from my brain out of my mouth and my body has been a journey.”

To portray the pups, Manasia and Greene worked with movement director Jaq Seifert to create a vocabulary that evokes a uniquely canine embodiment. “We didn’t want the actors to be dogs,” says Seifert, a passionate dog owner. “We decided to take qualities of dogs and humanize them. There’s a curiosity, a desire to understand and know, and a heightened sense of smell and hearing. They’re always listening, even in their sleep.”

Though largely on two legs during the production, Manasia and Greene embody the alertness, the abrupt emotional and energetic shifts, and a lolling sprawl that dog owners will recognize. And perhaps just as familiar as the way pooches perambulate is their quiet way of occupying space even when the humans (Jesse Montoya as Corey, Josh Pablo Szeto as Sean, and Jasmine Manuel as best friend Katy) are making all the noise.

“I’ve had three dogs, one of whom just passed away. I loved the script in many ways, and it felt like a nice way of honoring my dog Magic,” says director Daniel Washelesky. “There’s a great heart to this play. It has its ups and downs, but there’s a worldview that’s more optimistic than a lot of theater right now.”

Greene has never owned a dog (“My dad is obsessed with dogs but thinks they should live on farms. He says, ‘Even the small dogs should be able to chase a chicken!’”) but notes, “I feel that there are some really beautiful lessons here that are important for today. One of my favorite lines in the show is, ‘Why do we treat dogs better than we treat each other?’ And it’s like, yeah, why aren’t we nice more?”

Adds Washelesky, “We talk about ‘dog logic.’ A lot of times, dog logic is simplified compared to human logic. It’s like, ‘You love him. So love him.’ ”

Says Seifert, “There is a bond between humans and dogs that feels archaic and beautiful. I know that my dog, Shy, needs me to take care of him, but at the same time, he gives back without even trying.”

“You’re allowed to feel certain things with your dog,” says Manasia. “‘Dex & Abby’ does a great job of capturing that.”

Irene Hsiao is a local freelance writer.