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Bring On The Bow-Wows: Legally Blonde and Nell Gwynn Showcase Man's (and Woman's) Best Friend

Nell Gwynn - Chicago Shakespeare TheaterIt is an irrefutable axiom in the theater that children and animals are, by default, the highlight of any show in which they make an appearance. Just recently, a speckled hen received no less than three mentions in the Tribune's review of Mendoza, and a police dog seen briefly in one scene of Bruce Norris' Downstate at Steppenwolf was called by one critic "the most scary dog ever seen on a Chicago stage."

Who, then, can blame not one, but two plays currently running in Chicago for including canines in their casts?

History records the reigning monarch in Nell Gwynn so doting of his furry attendants—even to passing an edict declaring it unlawful to refuse them entry to public spaces in the realm—that the breed is now named for their champion, the King Charles spaniels. They are represented in Jessica Swale's romantic comedy by the two-and-a-half-year-old Bentley, the latest in a line of four-legged cameo players in the repertoire of Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Elizabeth I having often professed a great fondness for dogs)

When not being carried onstage and transported in the arms of Charles and his footmen (safely protected from feet hidden beneath courtly robes), Bentley lounges on a plush bed or sups from water and food bowls in his own dressing room, under the watchful eye of owner Heather Kline. Between shows on matinee days, he frolics in Navy Pier's nearby parks or grabs energy naps in anticipation of evening performances. His pre-show regimen includes greeting scene partner Timothy Edward Kane, having his hair brushed and observing that precautionary rite shared by all actors, the last-minute bathroom break.

Legally BlondeLuxurious quarters may be commonplace adjacent to the Loop and the Magnificent Mile, but the Paramount Theater, where Legally Blonde is about to wrap up its run, is located in a 1931-vintage building situated in semi-rural Aurora. What accommodations can its vaudeville-era architecture offer Frankie and Romeo, respectively portraying Bruiser the Chihuahua and Rufus the Bulldog?

Why not, literally, the star suite? At the theater, the two fidos and trainer Lara Hayhurst share backstage space with lead actress Casey Shuler, retiring between shows to a hotel near their place of employment, where they can stroll along the riverfront before reporting for early call at the theater. [As with stage fights, choreography encompassing intricate high-speed combinations—running and jumping, for example—requires regular refresher drills.] According to Hayhurst, both animals love the applause showered upon them at curtain calls, but after doing eight shows a week, look forward to their two days' rest.

Human artists often find their duties encompassing personal interactions with admirers, and these Man's (and Woman's) Best Friends are no exceptions. Frankie and Romeo participate in pre-arranged meet-and-greets with Bow-wowser fans, but rarely venture out into the lobby after the show lest the attention transform a peaceful egress into a melee, nor does their diet permit them to accept edible gifts from strangers.

Bentley, on the other hand, is happy to pose for selfies with theatergoers following each performance, and has been reported to favor peanut butter treats as his favorite snack.

Legally Blonde runs at Paramount Theater in Aurora through October 21

Nell Gwynn runs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through November 4

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer

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