Raised by Dogs
Boris Yeltzin’s Russia was a cold and difficult place, a superpower in transition, a time when life, always difficult, got harder still for many ordinary Russians.
It was into this setting that four-year-old Ivan Mishukov was forced from an abusive home into the streets of Moscow, let loose to live or die, but was literally saved by a pack of dogs.
The story of Ivan and the Dogs – a one-man play now showing at The Players Loft Theatre in Manhattan -- stars 2010 Rowan alumnus Kevin Melendez as an adult Ivan under the direction of Rowan theatre professor David Sullivan.
The chair of Rowan’s Department of Theatre and Dance, Sullivan previously directed Melendez in Rowan productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Our Country is Good. Melendez also played the lead of Tevya in a 2010 university production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Sullivan, who previously directed Off Broadway at the Irish Arts Center, Irish Repertory Theatre and Center Stage/NY, said there were literally hundreds of talented young performers who would have chomped at the part of Ivan, but he already had his actor in mind.
“After considering a lot of other actors I knew Kevin would be right for this part,” Sullivan said. “One reviewer said he was born to play this part.”
The 60-minute play is set on a bare stage with just two plain wood chairs, a music box, and Melendez as Ivan, now a young man, recounting the story of his boyhood.
Sullivan described the emotional drama as gripping, especially because it is true.
“This is a four-year-old boy who’s forced from his home,” Sullivan says. “He tries to find another family but the only one he can find is a pack of wild dogs.”
The pack of five dogs, led by a large white female, reluctantly allows the boy into their den where he lives for two years, foraging for food with the dogs, grunting, growling and hunting. News accounts later described Ivan as “the dog boy of Moscow,” a feral child who was literally raised, in part, by wild animals.
Sullivan, who taught Melendez in several theatre courses at Rowan, said the play explores such themes as what it means to be a family, what it means to belong, and, ultimately, what it means to be human.
Ivan was eventually removed from the pack by authorities who, tipped off by a restaurant owner, placed him in an orphanage.
“Slowly, through the kindness of a woman who wants to adopt him, he does return to civilized society, but always a part of him remains dog,” Sullivan said.
While he cannot place every drama student on a professional New York City stage after graduating, Sullivan said the Rowan Theatre and Dance faculty go out of their way to help open doors.
“We believe in mentoring our students, in trying to build a bridge from the educational world to the professional world. We do everything we can to get the kids to meet in Philadelphia or New York,” he said.
Ivan and the Dogs is the fourth professional production for Melendez since graduating. He found an agent and has been admitted to the Actors' Equity Association, a labor union representing American actors and stage managers.
Melendez credited his Rowan teachers with helping him build technique and the business savvy necessary to succeed in the very competitive world of professional theatre.
He applied technique he studied at Rowan – developing a character and becoming it – in researching the part of Ivan. He read case studies about feral children and everything he could find about the real Ivan.
“You use that research to create the skeleton of a character and then flesh it out in rehearsal,” Melendez said. “What I do with these tools, what any actor does with them, is up to them, but you’d be surprised how many professional actors out there don’t really know.”
In addition to Sullivan, the production features behind-the-scenes work by several other Rowan Theatre and Dance faculty and staff members including set design by Bart Healy, costume design by Stephanie Nichols and technical direction by Tom Fusco.
Ivan and the Dogs, the American premier of an Olivier Award-nominated play, runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights through the end of May at The Players Loft Theater, 115 Macdougal Street, in New York City.
Tickets for the 9 PM shows are $25 and are available by phone at (212)352-3101 or at www.theatermania.com.