Actor/playwright Logan Black’s “Bond” is, among other things, a tale of service, bravery, fear and endurance in a time of war.
But beyond that, this extended monologue is a love story. And like any good love story should, it packs a punch.
Black and a smart yellow lab named Diego served together in Iraq as an explosives-detecting team in several locations, most notably in the contested city of Fallujah. Black was an Army specialist attached to a unit of Marines. So, thanks to the natural fraternal bonds within each service branch, Black was the perpetual outsider whose closest companion was Diego, a partner with whom he survived his share of harrowing experiences.
Black’s script teaches the audience quite a bit about the contrast between real war and what the movies show us. And he explains in considerable detail what’s involved in training a dog as uniquely gifted as Diego.
Black first performed this piece at the 2015 KC Fringe Festival and the current version — although performed in the same space at the Unicorn Theatre — is significantly different. Director Cynthia Levin encouraged Black to consider changing and adding to the basic structure of his play.
In the Fringe production, Black was the only actor on stage (although Diego, who was still with us, came out for a memorable curtain call.) Black allowed his words and impressive performance skills to transport the audience to a world few of us in the arts-criticism scribbling class have experienced.
The version now onstage at the Unicorn is longer and more detailed and twice allows Black to step into the role of a British trainer from whom he and Diego learned their craft. The biggest change is Diego’s presence onstage. A cleverly designed puppet from Mesner Puppet Theatre operated by Erika Lynnette Baker represents the now-deceased lab in all his playfulness, intelligence and bravery.
At first glance, the introduction of a puppet and puppeteer feels like a gimmick. At second glance, it feels like a children’s-theatre conceit grafted onto a play for adults. But ultimately, Baker’s puppetry skills coupled with Black’s persuasive descriptions of the real Diego more-or-less win us over.
At the Sunday matinee, Black performed at a feverish pitch for most of the show’s running time. He careened from one episode to the next at a breakneck pace. A bit more nuance would allow Black a little breathing room and viewers a chance to consider the gravity of the war’s toll.
But in the final minutes the show shifts to a quieter, sobering tone. Black’s description of his separation from Diego at the end of his one-year tour is grim and poignant. So is his description of spending his first night home from Iraq at a motel because nobody in his unit thought to arrange housing. And the story of the lengths he went to to locate Diego after the dog’s “retirement” is touching and inspiring.
The show ends with two words: “Diego, come!” Black sinks to his knees, arms outstretched, waiting for his “son” to come to him as the theater darkens and we see a succession of slides of the real Diego. A lump in one’s throat is inevitable as we witness one of those indelible moments that are all too rare in theater.
In a way, this is a critic-proof work. Because Black was an aspiring actor before he joined the service, it comes as no surprise that this piece feels tailored by and for people with a sensitive, liberal point of view. That includes love of animals. As my wife once explained to a pet-adoption service, actors would run into a burning building to save their cats.
Black never explicitly criticizes the war. But the anecdotes he shares describing avoidable deaths, ever-present paranoia about civilians who may or may not be enemy combatants, the perpetual threat posed by countless land mines and the unknown fate of children he encountered add up to a kind of spiritual despair.
And that may be the point. The bond between Black and Diego transcended mutual survival and went far beyond a conventional relationship between human handler and service dog. What Black felt and articulates in this play was the spiritual connection between man and dog.
For those of us who happen to believe that most four-legged animals are superior to humans in all the ways that count, Black’s story is inspiring and moving.
Like I said, it packs a punch.
“Bond” runs through May 19 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call 816-531-7529 or visit www.unicorntheatre.org.