OU’s Wartime Drama Dogfight is Beautiful and Heartbreaking

Published November 5, 2018 | By Adrienne Proctor

The Weitzenhoffer Family College of Fine Arts and Oklahoma University present the musical Dogfight, a beautiful and haunting story of innocence, love, and things lost. Based on the 1991 film of the same name, Dogfight follows a group of young Marines on their last night of freedom before shipping off to serve their country in 1961. The 60s brought the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of a president, and a conflict in an unknown jungle called Vietnam. Looking back with our modern perspective, the world seems more innocent, if not idealistically naïve.

But as anyone who actually lived and died during that time could probably attest, there was certainly cruelty then as there is now. Dogfight is based on a real-life Marine tradition. The young men featured in the show place bets to find the ugliest date they can land, and bring her to a dance the night before they leave. A last hurrah for the men, they dance with their unwitting partners for final scores. The Marine with the highest score, meaning his date is the ugliest, wins the pot and bragging rights among his brothers. With a cry of “Semper Fi”, the men set off to find their dates.

Daryl Tofa is Eddie Birdlace, the leader of a trio of Marines who call themselves the Three Bees. Tofa is gracious under fire, delivering some hurtful words and actions. Still he maintains his potential for kindness. Tofa is bold, and boldness is required in this role. Katja Rivera Yanko is Rose Fenny, a waitress who works for her mother and the victim of Birdlace’s “ugly date” advances. Yanko is reserved but strong, a true testament to the women of the time and to her character. Yanko and Tofa are believable, a hard sell for such an unbelievably cruel storyline. Yanko’s solos are sweet and clear. She takes a turn into deep emotional expression by the end of Act I.  Yanko’s voice is powerful and her talent can’t be held back. Yet she maintains control and composure throughout the show.

Tanner Berry as Boland and Keith Gruber as Bernstein complete the Three Bees trio. Both are impressively arrogant and charming. Berry and Gruber keep up appearances long enough, but eventually both show their vulnerability. They’re facing uncertain futures for unclear reasons, and they’re scared. It’s a harsh truth to remember. The people charged with defending our country are, too often, just kids. Berry and Gruber approach the reality of the Vietnam War with honor, fire, and fear that’s honest and engaging.

Hannah McNew is Marcy, one of the contestants of the ugly date contest, and the only one who’s keen to the secret. McNew is supposed to be ugly, but the obvious flaw in this plan is that she’s far too pretty. Even the fake teeth she uses to help drive up the scores don’t hide her beauty very well. McNew is sly and smart. Convincing as ugly, not so much, but convincing as a wonderful talent she certainly is.

Aaron Stewart as Stevens, Jermarcus Riggins as Gibbs and Gonzalo Aburto de la Fuente complete the company of Marines. Notable ensemble scenes include several on-stage costume changes. Tricky, but well executed, these quick-change scenes serve as potent reminders that there are just regular people underneath the uniforms.

Abby Cramer is Rose’s Mama and Lily Nicholas is one of the dance contestants, Ruth Two Bears. A standout moment of hilarity occurs with Tanner Dillon as the lounge singer. The entire cast is talented beyond their years or experience, and they deliver an important message with compassion and great sensitivity.

The strength of Dogfight remains not in the transformation of a villain into a hero, or the rise and fall of youth and promise. It’s in the subtle reminder that any of us can be the bad guy, or the savior, at any moment in life. To judge anyone by their worst moments, or their best, is to forget their humanity. This talented cast of students, directed by Lyn Cramer, shows the brutally truthful side to a painful time in American history. And they remind us that we’re all just doing the best we can with the circumstances we’re given.

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