My, how Toto has changed over the years!
You’d expect from the title TOTO TALKS that Dorothy Gale’s cairn terrier from you-know-which-film would surprise you just by coming out with complete sentences.
What you might not have anticipated, however, is the bitch that comes to life in Randall David Cook’s 55-minute one-man play.
Although this Toto can be mighty bitchy, “bitch” is not meant as a pejorative. Toto’s a she, which, in fact, the actual dog in the 1939 film was. (You might not have inferred that from the terrier’s actual name: Terry. It is, after all, a unisex one.)
Nevertheless, would you expect Toto to emerge wearing a sequined neck collar, carmine nail polish and high heels?
“Dogs never tire of attention,” explains Jamison Stern, who plays Toto (and was quickly pressed into service after another actor left). “I just want to be in an extravaganza.”
Toto’s wish has hardly been granted, for the play is ensconced at the Kraine Theatre, not the city’s most elegant black box. Don’t look for a set that resembles either Kansas or The Emerald City. It’s 99 and 44/100% a bare stage.
Still, the play’s the thing and it does endeavor to have Toto tell all. Lest we question a canine’s ability to speak, Toto asks “Do you think a dog can’t talk in a place where monkeys can fly and trees can throw apples?”
So why doesn’t she speak in the film? Playwright Cook gives an unconvincing reason.
Toto seems less a female than an effeminate man. Although the overly flamboyant Jamison Stern seems to channel Dana Ivey and the late Carole Shelley – both Stern and director Joey McKneely aren’t going for subtlety — he can’t shake the image of a biological male.
The dog gives “my fellow friends of Dorothy” a warm welcome. Toto speaks well of Judy Garland, which, considering the show’s target audience, she’d better.
And yet, Toto’s frank about his not agreeing with Dorothy’s insistence to leave Oz in order to return to Kansas. Toto dislikes the state and not merely because it’s in black-and-white-and-grey; as she reminds us, dogs aren’t able to discern many colors.
Despite an inability to appreciate the emerald tints that overwhelm the city that she, Dorothy and their three traveling companions explore, Toto sees Kansas as colorless in another sense. Oz is, to use a word Toto employs more than once, “fantabulosa.” It sure beats “flat plain to flat plain” for, as Toto more bluntly puts it, “Home sucks.”
We get Toto’s perceptions of the time-honored characters we’ve known since we were toddlers. The Wicked Witch of the East – the one accidently killed by Dottie’s falling house — was a “smelly whore.” The Tin Man was once a real flesh-and-blood human who endured so many amputations (down to a castration and penectomy) that he wound up all metal. Toto prefers to call The Cowardly Lion “Big Pussy” which leads to with a number of semi-offensive descriptions of gays. (As Harold says in THE BOYS IN THE BAND, “That’s the pot calling the kettle beige.”)
There’s a good deal of toilet humor – literally, for you may have noticed in your rest room stops (or even at home) that there’s a toilet company named Toto. However, the toilet seat that’s brought out — and through which Toto sticks his head – is not, we’re told, one of the company’s models, because they’re too expensive. Again: TOTO TALKS is on a tight budget.
The introduction of the toilet concept allows Toto to tell us about urinating on the road, which, because it’s made of yellow bricks, no one noticed.
Toto tells us that the elements of THE WIZARD OF OZ “don’t make sense.” When you think of it, none needs to, because (we don’t need a “spoiler alert” here, do we?) Dorothy has been dreaming. Her dreams aren’t required to make sense on a literal level any more than yours do. Don’t you smile when you awake from a dream and realize that what had been in your head couldn’t possibly have happened for one reason or another? So anything goes in dreams, which means nothing in THE WIZARD OF OZ needs be meticulously explained or criticized.
The real surprise is that The Wicked Witch of the West isn’t mentioned until the 45-minute mark – when the show has only 10 minutes to go. Playwright Cook apparently became lazy or bored – either reaction is understandable – and has Toto say she’ll wrap up the plot in less than a minute which indeed she does prior to a dull denouement.
Since my first TV viewing of THE WIZARD OF OZ as a child, I’ve been a big fan of Terry. When Dorothy & Co. sing that they’re “off to see the wizard” watch Terry keep pace, look up and make sure she’s not missing anything or getting in the way. In acting her part, she certainly does her part.
Perhaps the best result of attending TOTO TALKS is being reminded of how good Terry was.