A stray mutt rescued from an animal shelter has emerged as a show business trouper with an extensive list of Broadway credits and an impending appearance in Shakespeare on the Sound’s production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” in Rowayton’s Pinkney Park.
Oliver the dog is described as an “All-American mix” by his trainer, Bill Berloni of Haddam, CT whose work with animals in the theater has been recognized with a Tony.
The romantic comedy unfolding under the stars in the natural amphitheater of the park June 12-29 is for all practical purposes the only one of Shakespeare’s plays with a part on-stage for an animal to enliven the plot.
Oliver is a foil Shakespeare impishly calls “Crab,” the surly, disobedient sidekick of a typically eccentric Shakespearean character named Launce, a servant played by Tom Pecinka, a young New Haven actor.
The role calls for Oliver to establish a supporting presence with his impassive demeanor while remaining undistracted by the actors moving around the stage, at times spiritedly, waving their arms and uttering their lines impassionedly.
“Training an animal not to react,” Berloni says, “is more difficult than getting it to respond actively on cue.”
The Rowayton presentation in rehearsal now is a reprise for Oliver in Shakespeare. He appeared in the same role last year in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of the play in Washington, DC.
Since being plucked as a puppy from a shelter in New Jersey by Berloni seven years ago, Oliver has filled out to an irresistibly huggable 65 pounds and worked all over the U.S. as Little Orphan Annie’s faithful companion Sandy in the revival of the classic musical “Annie.”
The original show –as it was being mounted at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT in 1976—was the genesis of Berloni’s professional arc as an animal trainer., ultimately leading to a Tony in 2011 “for extraordinary dedication in training rescued animals for the stage with abundant creativity and exemplifying the highest ideals of humane behavior.”
At that time, “Berloni was 20 years old, an apprentice enamored of the world of theater, looking for acting work. Was there a part somewhere for him? Just maybe, he was told by impresario Michael Price—76 now and preparing to retire after 46 years as the executive director of the opera house-- if . . . if you can find us a dog and train the animal to play Sandy on the live stage.
Berloni’s aspirations as an actor never went much further. But he discovered an Airedale mix in a shelter the day before the dog was supposed to be euthanized, paid a $7 fee and converted the foundling into Annie’s partner for 2,377 shows and seven years on Broadway.
From that serendipitous start blossomed a lifetime of work as a professional trainer and purveyor of animal talent for film, commercials, print and live shows like “Bullets Over Broadway,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Camlelot, “Anything Goes,” “The Wiz” and on and on.
The 35 years of achievement were acknowledged with a Tony for Berloni in 2011 “for extraordinary dedication in training rescued animals for the stage with abundant creativity and exemplifying the highest ideals of humane behavior.”
Today Berloni and his wife Dorothy oversee a 90-acre property in Haddam, CT with a menagerie at diverse levels of talent—26 dogs, two cats, two pigs, two chickens, a pony, a donkey, a lama and a macaw.
“The dogs pay the rent,” Berloni reports. “How do we select them? On the basis of temperament rather than intelligence.”
There is no secret to training animals, Berloni admits. “It’s simply positive reinforcement,” he says. “I’m not hesitant to reveal that because it’s important for people to understand treating animals aggressively doesn’t work.”
“Two Gents, ” as Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is popularly known, is believed to be The Bard’s earliest play and director Claire Kelly’s interpretation is designed for a family-oriented audience. Many make a picnic out of the evening, sprawled on the grassy slope with blankets and deckchairs, baskets crammed with culinary goodies and libations.
There is no charge for general admission or parking. Donations fund the play in part, suggested at $20 or $10 for seniors and students. Reserved seating is also available. Additional information about the activities of Shakespeare on the Sound and a South African Braai (barbecue) fundraiser June 9 is available at www.shakespeareonthesound.org.