“Red Dog Howls” tells the story of a dark family secret, and one man’s journey to unveil the truth. The play opened on Sept. 24 for a three-week run at the New York Theatre Workshop in Manhattan. The cast includes Tony Award nominee Kathleen Chalfant, Florencia Lozano, and Alfredo Narciso. The Weekly’s Lilly Torosyan conducted the following interview with the playwright Alexander Dinelaris.
Lilly Torosyan: How did the project get started?
Alexander Dinelaris: My family has a history of secrets, dysfunction, and depression. When I found out that I was going to be a father back in 2006, I started to panic. I feared that somehow these elements would pass down to my child—like some unwanted legacy.
I began to wrestle with the notion in my head, and that’s when I conceived ‘Red Dog Howls,’ a play about a man who is desperately trying to understand the pain that has lived in the houses of his fathers so that he might be cleansed of it and be a strong father for his child.
After a trip to Athens, and the theatre of Dionysus, it occurred to me that the structure would be that of a Greek tragedy. Oedipus sets out to rid his country of a plague only to find out that he, himself, is the source of the plague. And so, ‘Red Dog Howls’ was born.
LT: The play centers on a secret concerning a family’s struggle in the Armenian Genocide. Please tell us more about the plot.
AD: At the start of the play, Michael Kiriakos’s father has died. In his father’s closet, he finds a box of letters. His father has left a note asking him to bury the letters with him, but before he does, Michael takes down the return address and eventually goes to that place. When he arrives, he encounters a mysterious Armenian woman who eventually sheds light on the dark history of his family. That history winds its way back to Armenia in 1915. So, in order for Michael to eradicate the ‘plague’ of depression, which has shrouded his family, he must learn what the source of that ‘plague’ is. It is a harrowing journey for him and he must tunnel through that darkness to come to a place of light.
LT: You have stated that the play is “in a way, autobiographical, but not from the perspective of this particular genocide story.” Can you elaborate on this?
AD: The basis of the story is born of my desire to make sense of the dysfunction and depression of my own family. So, the story grows from that very personal exploration. In addition, the characters are modeled on my real family. The old woman, Vartouhi, is crafted after my actual grandmother. They both share the same strength, will, and tenacious love that I remember growing up with. When Michael talks about his father, I am very much describing my own father who passed away in 2005. In that way, this play is a tribute to two people I loved very dearly.
LT: How are you conveying awareness about the Armenian Genocide, after nearly a century of struggle in bringing it to the forefront of American psyches?
AD: I think what affects people about this play is how real the family is—that this family could be their family. Once the audience identifies with this Armenian grandmother, Armenians are no longer ‘other people.’ Then the pain of what these people lived through becomes their pain. And that, if anything, is what brings about awareness.
I receive many emails from non-Armenians, who after seeing the play tell me that they had never heard of the Armenian Genocide before, and ask me to recommend books for them to read on the subject. All of this occurs not because I stand on a soapbox and preach to them, but because hopefully they feel for these people on the stage and they want to make sense of what happens to them.
LT: What was it like working with the cast?
AD: This is an extremely skilled group of actors. Kathleen Chalfant is one of the greatest stage actresses of our time. Watching them embrace the material and execute it with such precision was a humbling experience for me. And it cannot go without saying that my director, Ken Rus Schmoll, is nothing short of a genius. He gently—but confidently, steered this play and cast through some very perilous waters. I will forever be in his debt.
LT: Will ‘Red Dog Howls’ be played in another venue in the future?
AD: I hope so. The response has been overwhelming and though it is very difficult emotional subject matter, I pray that we will have a chance to move to another venue here in New York and reach more people. Outside of that, there are already talks about a production in Armenia and Greece.
LT: What is the message you hope the audience will take away from the play?
AD: At one point of the play, Michael says, ‘I choose to believe in a God of Mercy. A God of Forgiveness. A God who would do anything for his children.’ I hope the message that they will take away is that it is possible to put the painful past to gentle rest, and still carry forward the lessons, the love, and the pride of who we are and where we came from.