'Larry's Best Friend'

What would you do if your dog turned into a beautiful woman?

That's one of the questions playfully explored in "Larry's Best Friend," a new comedy directed by Evalyn Hansen that opened Friday at Ashland Contemporary Theatre, by Ashland playwright and board member David C. Hill.

But Hill digs deeper than that, delving into themes of love and loyalty, magic and science, and male-female relationships. Larry (Douglas Young), a rational, science-minded engineer who's going through a break-up with his magical-minded girlfriend, gets more than he bargained for when his dog Ginger turns into a beautiful woman.

Larry is smug in his reliance on science and rationality, yet neurotic and clueless about relationships. His ex-girlfriend Rachel (Ruby Henrie), on the other hand, embraces new-age ideas. It is Rachel and her shaman McAlister, played with a happy airiness by John Litton, who set the events of Ginger's transformation into motion.

Though Young's lines are mostly limited to whining and insisting that his dog has not become a woman, he and the other actors have a nice chemistry, with a light-hearted approach and some instances of good comic timing. Composer Gina Scaccia's musical interludes add a touch of whimsy to the scenes.

It is in the second scene, the moment of Ginger's transformation, where the real dog, played by the cute and well-behaved Tiko, is replaced by actress Emma Wilkinson, that the play gets charming. Wilkinson's wide-eyed, expressive face and her gift for physical comedy bring energy and a sense of fun to the show.

It is Wilkinson's character who develops most as she learns what it is to be human while still maintaining some of her doggy ways. She responds to head scratching, sniffs Larry's shoes, eats out of bowls, even licks people's faces. Wilkinson is a strong actress, and even when she has no lines, she is fully present in her character and conveys a sense of animal delight in her surroundings.

Wilkinson is a strong actress, and even when she has no lines, she is fully present in her character and conveys a sense of animal delight in her surroundings. Alexei Menedes is sweet and lovable as Ginger's love interest, Doug.

The simple, small set works well for a play with a lot of intimate conversations, but the intimacy doesn't quite extend to the audience. While the actors are quite close, there are moments when one has to strain to hear the dialogue.

Though amusing and whimsical, the play does explore some serious questions about relationships, gender, and what it means to be human. That's a lot to pack in a play and keep it light, but writer Hill manages to do just that. The show, however, is not fast-paced. Over 21/2; hours long, with two acts and a combined total of 18 scenes, it could really benefit from trimming some dialogue or even eliminating some scenes altogether.

ACT is living up to its mission to offer local talents a chance to explore their creativity and share their love of theater. Whether it is set construction, lighting or acting, the cast and crew work like dogs to bring their best to amateur theater.

"Larry's Best Friend" runs through Oct. 10 at the Bellview Grange in Ashland. The show is sponsored, in part, by the Friends of the Animal Shelter, and the Oct. 2 performance will benefit the shelter.

Angela Howe-Decker is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at decker4@gmail.com.

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