DAVID S. HOGAN SOUNDS like he’s training to be a boxer: weight lifting, resistance training, jogging. Six days a week of workouts, more than he’s ever done to get ready for a part in a show. Then again, he’s never had to play a different species before.
Hogan has big paws to fill this month when he stars as loyal mutt Enzo in the stage premiere of Garth Stein’s best-selling novel The Art of Racing in the Rain, newly adapted by Book-It Repertory Theatre. Not only is the character beloved by pet owners and animal apathetics alike, but playing the furry narrator demands hours spent crawling (or racing) around on your hands and knees. Anyone over the age of two would agree: That ain’t fun.
The even greater challenge, though, is embodying a not-so-ordinary pooch who dreams of being reincarnated as a man. He yearns for opposable thumbs and scorns the monkeys who don’t deserve them. While the theater has produced other stories featuring dogs—John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness—Book-It co–artistic director Myra Platt, who adapted Racing for the stage, said “we still struggled with Enzo’s particular desirous destiny to become human…. Casting an actor to portray a dog: we wondered, would there be enough dramatic tension in hearing a dog talk on and on about how much he wished he could talk?”
Book-It’s style is to have its cast recite narration as dialogue—and in this case, the dog has plenty to say. As Enzo tells the story of his life spent with owner Denny, a semiprofessional race car driver, Denny’s wife Eve, and their daughter Zoë, he’s the wryest fly on the wall, observing how silly humans are when they’re full of fermented drinks, or how they stubbornly refuse to visit the doctor even when Enzo can smell the cancer. He’s a moralist (“Why can’t they see that spiritualism and science are one?”) and a dramatist (“For me, a good story is all about setting up expectations and delivering on them in an exciting and surprising way”). At times his primal nature overcomes him, and he’s forced to rip apart a squirrel to cope with the pain of losing a loved one. But, namely, Enzo is a philosopher pup that doles out wisdom like this is Zen and the Art of Racing in the Rain. His mantra? “That which you manifest is before you,” or simply stated, “We are the creators of our own destiny.” It’s a T-shirt waiting to happen. Wait, it’s already happened.
Fair to say that Hogan can’t just go around shaking his rear in this role. “I don’t want this to become a cartoon or a bunch of cliches. It’s not children’s theater,” he said. “I made it jokingly clear that I’m not going to be wearing a tail and ears. I’m going to have to portray a dog without being a dog.… I’m trying not to overthink it.” Still, the Seattle actor is uniquely positioned to embrace his inner Enzo. When he’s not in rehearsals or auditioning for local film spots, Hogan is a dog trainer who runs a dog-walking company in West Seattle (Google “David the Dog Trainer”). “I wouldn’t call myself a dog whisperer,” he demurred. That’s best left to Cesar Millan. But reading The Art of Racing in the Rain had Hogan looking into the eyes of his wards a bit more closely. “Dogs don’t process information the same way humans do, but they show emotion.… They communicate in all kinds of wonderful ways.”
No need to tell Seattleites that. We have doggie therapists, pet insurance—and when the going gets rough, our pooches can pull up a stool at Norm’s Eatery and Alehouse. When Stein penned his novel in 2008, he tapped a nerve. He gave a voice to man’s best friend that wasn’t cloying; Enzo might as well be a teenager for all his smartassery, his inability to vote, and his reliance on Denny to drive him places. The Art of Racing in the Rain paperback practically lives on the New York Times best-seller list—143 weeks and counting—and has already been adapted for children and optioned by Universal Studios. The film is slated for release in 2014 with Dr. McDreamy himself, Patrick Dempsey, playing Denny, but Stein is even more excited about Book-It’s production.
Stein has handed off his DVD collection of “important racing films that Enzo wouldn’t want you to miss, like Le Mans” to Carol Roscoe, his friend and the director of the Seattle staging. Otherwise, he’s staying out of the adaptation process, “for the same reason I have nothing to do with the film,” he said. “The book is my thing. Trying to adapt it or even to be involved with it—you might as well ask me to adapt it as a haiku. It would take a fresh set of eyes, because I would want to keep everything in it. It’s best to let the talented people do what they do best.”