Colt — the Shetland sheepdog who was removed from a filthy Spook Rock Road home, only to be returned before being struck by a car trying to escape again — is back, in the unlikeliest of places: on stage at Antrim Playhouse.
In 2008, he was one of 23 dogs removed from the Wesley Hills home of Karol O’Connell, who was accused of hoarding animals and failing to care for them. Ramapo police and members of the SPCA wore gas masks to enter the home, in which pets were kept in their own filth.
When Colt was returned to the home months later, the Sheltie immediately ran away and was struck by a car, sustaining a broken back that required surgery and for the dog to be placed in a body cast. He walks with a limp.
Village Justice Philip Schnelwar charged O’Connell with criminal contempt, for defying his order against her having multiple pets. Schnelwar, a witness in the criminal-contempt case, then recused himself from handling the charges against O’Connell.
O’Connell, who later pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct violation and relinquished ownership of all but one of her dogs, paid a state-mandated civil fine, $125, the village court clerk said.
Meanwhile, Colt became the ward of the Humane Society, living in the Manhattan and Stony Point homes of its acting president, Ann Marie Gaudio.
That might have been the last anyone had heard of Colt, a former American and Canadian show-ring champion who went on to become a therapy dog, helping humans deal with their problems.
Until this spring, when the Antrim Playhouse — a half-mile from that house of canine horrors — was looking for an old bunkhouse dog for its production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”
When producer Connie Reiss Tarangano contacted Gaudio, she suggested Colt.
Director Brooke Malloy Ortiz was sold.
“Colt has the best bio of all of us,” Ortiz said with a laugh. “He’s real sweet, a retired therapy dog. He’s not old, so we changed the dialogue to talk about how he has this wound on his leg and his back is broken. And we wet down his fur to make him look a bit more worn.”
In Steinbeck’s story of two itinerant farm workers, an old handyman named Candy has an old dog that one of the men, Carlson, constantly berates and abuses, eventually persuading the boss to let him put the dog out of its misery. It’s Steinbeck’s metaphor for those who’ve outlived their welcome — foreshadowing action later in the play — and it’s a powerful moment, said Gordon Wolotira of Suffern, who plays Candy.
To help stage owner bond with stage pet, Ortiz forbade anyone in her cast but Wolotira from petting or feeding Colt; particularly not Eric Schuster, who plays Carlson.
“Every time that Carlson has to pull the dog away from Candy, Colt growls at him and sometimes sits down and will not budge,” the director said. “We didn’t even train him to do that. But there’s a lot of shouting on stage, so he just wants to stay with Gordon, who has treats for him.
“It’s hard, because everyone wants to pet the dog and love the dog,” Ortiz added. “But on that set, Gordon is his only person.”
Wolotira can’t say enough about his four-legged co-star.
“He’s such a great dog in a tough role,” he said. “Apparently, he has been in the lights, has been in shows and has been in front of audiences. Still, he does whatever he wants. And, because of his back injury, I can’t push his back down to get him to sit. So sometimes he wanders a bit. I try to coax him and be as friendly as I can, but he has his own mind.”
Ortiz said the Sheltie’s acting ability makes Antrim “look like real professionals.”
“Everyone who has seen it has said, what a great actor that dog is. When Eric starts yelling at him — which he does magnificently — Coltie starts looking at him like ‘Why are you doing that?’”
All told, Wolotira said, Colt spends about a dozen minutes onstage.
“But I think it’s some of the most engrossing moments of the play and it certainly gets the audience’s attention,” the actor said. “By the time they drag him off, it’s heart-breaking.”
For Gaudio, Colt’s story is about determination.
“After the accident, he was in a body cast for eight to 10 weeks. He’s a survivor,” she said. “He teaches us tenacity and canine spirit — which is better than the human spirit. It’s a great story.”
Colt brings his story to the stage with him for “Of Mice and Men,” in a run that has been extended by a weekend.
Performances have been added at 8 p.m. June 29 and 30.
‘Of Mice and Men’
Where: Antrim Playhouse, 15 Spook Rock Road, Wesley Hills
When: Extended through June 30. 8 p.m., June 22, 23, 29, 30; 2 p.m., June 24
Tickets: $20, $18 for seniors and students.
Photo by Betsy Franco Feeney: Gordon Wolotira and Colt on stage in the Antrim Playhouse’s production of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”