‘Dogfight’ examines complex situation’s gray area

From left, Tommy Hart, Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton and Johnny Link rehearse for the Penn State Centre Stage production of “Dogfight.”
From left, Tommy Hart, Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton and Johnny Link rehearse for the Penn State Centre Stage production of “Dogfight.” Photo provided

The devil can always be found in the details, and that is exactly where they lie in “Dogfight.” The emotional musical based on the 1991 film takes a look at three young Marines and the havoc they wreak upon an innocent waitress in order to cope during their final evening together before being deployed to Vietnam.

Set in the early 1960s, there is an undercurrent of dread prevalent throughout “Dogfight” (a brutal term that comes into play as the plot unravels) that distinguishes this production from the more atypical musicals.

“I am drawn to shows that have a darker side, that ask more complex questions and don’t always necessarily provide an answer, but leave the audience to come to their own conclusion,” director Richard Roland said. “What made me decide on directing ‘Dogfight’ was the complex story and the characters. I also fell in love with the score, which is gorgeous.”

“One of the things I love about the show is that it examines the gray area,” said Laura Landrum, who plays the waitress, Rose. “I feel like so few things in life are black and white, and ‘Dogfight’ portrays how sometimes right and wrong are not necessarily obvious. So many musicals are happy to just have a strong romantic couple and nice music, but ‘Dogfight’ goes way beyond that.”

“This musical is relevant to everyone,” said Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton, who plays Birdlace, the lead. “It shows you the ugly side of people stuck in unfortunate circumstances. It forces you to really look inside yourself and not to just take things as they are on a superficial level. It helps to be able to take a step back and look at things from a distance, which ‘Dogfight’ absolutely accomplishes.”

Memory is a tricky thing; perhaps the most interesting aspect about “Dogfight” is that the entire production is based on the main character’s memory. In addition to providing an exciting sort of unreliability, it also gave Roland and the production designers free reign to experiment.

“This allows me to approach the show from a non-literal sense,” Roland said. “It frees us up in terms of set design, sound design, lighting design, how we move pieces of furniture around the set, how our transitions work from scene to scene. It’s actually quite liberating and a nice breath of fresh air after previously working on shows that often require a very literal set.”

“We have to create a lot of the places and pieces,” Landrum added. “The musical also weaves between 1963 and 1967, so we have to make sure that it’s obvious which time period we’re in without jarring the audience. There’s a dream-like quality to the whole production, so we have be honest to our characters and their reality while also working within that hazy frame.”

“Dogfight,” an at-times barbarous story, has the unique challenge of leaving everything up to the audience without alienating them. The parallels that some of the characters draw alongside those closest to us only serve to make this production all the more powerful.

“I think the biggest challenge in tackling this material is first and foremost making the main characters likable and making them believable,” Roland said, “The show tackles a very tough situation and I don’t want the audience necessarily to take sides with these characters. Rather, I hope they find the compassion to understand, if not love, these characters.”