Woof Woof for Sylvia – a Kooky Canine Romp Through the Looking Glass of Life

Here is what the Haliburton County Voice (www.countyvoice.ca)
had to say about the Highlands Summer Festival’s second dramatic production, Sylvia:

Seamus O’Bradaigh

Hear the one about the dyslexic atheist? Doesn’t believe in Dog.

Dyslexic atheists might have a bone to pick with Sylvia, but you won’t find their ilk anywhere in the barking mad Haliburton Highlands – heavenly haven to a committed cognoscente of canine canoodlers. Ignore the howling heathens; and run as quick as your four – er – two legs will carry you; run fast like a whippet; finagle a ticket; bribe the concierge in the lobby at Haliburton’s Northern Lights Pavilion of the Performing Arts.

That’s where you’ll find Sylvia, a charmingly neurotic, esoteric and entirely delightful dog who, like most dogs we know, carry secrets, wonders and special gifts of healing and rejuvenation, drawn unerringly from their unique tail-wagging capacity for unconditional love.

Sylvia emerges in the opening act as benign deus ex machina. A dog warp-wrapped in human form. A canny canine and a perplexing Heinz 57 mixture of passion, piss and pop-eyed vinegar; Sylvia is a sumptuous soul wrought from the fertile and spark-addled synapses that click like pin-balls in the wonderfully eclectic mind of playwright A.R. Gurney.

Sylvia is a stray, who suddenly and profoundly wheedles her way into the lives of Kate and Greg, a newly transplanted middle-aged couple from the New York suburbs, adjusting to their new life in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Kate (played lovingly by Lesley English), armed with a recently acquired MA in English, is ready to embark on a new career, teaching Shakespeare to middle school kids in Harlem. Greg (played by the effervescent Brian Kipping) is in the middle of a mid-life crisis and is disenchanted, drifting, and devoid of compass. His corporate sales job in the banking industry was manageable when they were raising their kids in suburbia.

The kids are in college, Kate has developed a sinecure of her own; and Greg is in search of something, anything to draw his focus from boardroom to broader horizon. Enter Sylvia (Jocelyn Regina), a discombobulated bundle of fun Greg picks up in the park one day while cadging an extended lunch. He’s had an argument with his boss Harold, and is sitting on a park bench when Sylvia lands, quite literally, in his lap. She has a single tag on her collar embossed with her name. Enamored, smitten, and in love, Greg brings her home to the apartment – and Kate, who is neither smitten nor enamored of this huge infringement on her privacy.

Ahh, what a sweet collision.

Sylvia prompts the inevitable romantic triangle. Greg sees it as win-win. Kate at one poignant point in the play, says that Sylvia is chomping a serious hole in their 22-year marriage.

See Sylvia run; see Sylvia chase red ball; see Sylvia sit; see Sylvia strut smooth and slinky in black low cut evening gown; see Sylvia swear like a drunken sailor on shore leave in Singapore? Whoooa! Down Sylvia, down! Okay, so Dr. Seuss it ain’t. Thank Dog for that.

If you like metaphor you’ll love Sylvia. If you love irony you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be swept away. If you flunked English, but love a good raunchy comedy that tousles your head and rubs you ecstatically just behind the ears – and elsewhere – you will find common ground in this tale about all kinds of love. This play weaves its rich, wonderful and convoluted magic on many levels.

The sincere art had the opening night crowd at Northern Lights pawing the air, rolling over, and clapping their paws. Almost hearkening a seminal Oscar moment: “They like me! They really, really like me!”

Two thumbs for the stunningly stylish siren: Sylvia. And bravo for those equally ambiguous owners, Kate and Greg, two iconoclasts seeking something. The something is not Sylvia, or at least not the transmogrified Sylvia played so marvelously by Jocelyn. The something they’re seeking is deeper, and more manifest; they are seeking solace for the dwindling years, and the effect time’s passage wreaks on marriage, and life. Kipping and English are marvelous as the discombobulated couple struggling to place face on their relationship. We know they will find it through Sylvia.

But how?

Ahh, there’s the rub.

Sylvia. Catalyst, conduit, or crass interloper?

Thankfully and thoughtfully, Gurney, a uniquely talented master of dialogue and the sharp aside, has left room for interpretation. We relate to her charming owners. We fall in love with the puppy. And we howl like the Baskervilles at Gurney’s triple foil: pot-smoking dog park philosopher and book club of the month aficionado Tom; Phyllis, the whiskey swilling socialite with an unabridged gamut of Upper West Side neuroses; and Dr. Leslie, the ambiguous, analgesic and androgynous Demerol and Psilocybin enhanced shrink. There are a myriad of reasons for the gales of laughter that accompanies the three characters – they are all played by Jocelyn’s dad, the reigning master of Haliburton summer theater, Tom Regina. Tom is the bomb in all three roles. Two are played in drag, but Dr. Leslie is redundant enough to defy description. Let’s just say she adheres to neither Jung nor Freud. Dr. Leslie is more Gaga but the Lady part must alas wait; for the mandatory Olympic drug tests.

There is no risk of Tom upstaging his daughter, who absolutely stole the hearts and made off with the fricasseed minds of the patrons on opening night.

Sylvia can be played in different ways by different actors. Some directors taper the on stage manifestations and movements to the actress they’re working with. Director Laurence Follows is a member of the first family of Canadian theater and the brother of Megan Follows. He’s a well known Canadian director and established one of the country’s most successful and commercial theater companies, a troupe responsible for opening the Panasonic Theater on Yonge in Toronto. He is also a renowned acting coach, mentor and muse. Follows said just prior to the play on Monday evening that he gave Jocelyn room to grow with the role. She plays it just as I would – and do every day with my own dog Billie Jean O’Bradaigh – wide open. She rolls over, catches doggie treats in her mouth and searches on all fours for those “f-ing cats” that have, says Sylvia, been messing with dogs since the dawn of time. She leaps on visitors and even smells the inviting crotch of Phyllis. Sending Phyllis into shaking guzzles of medicinal scotch from the bottle. Just another night at the Regina household? Probably not, but oh what a beautiful dance.

The audience clearly enjoyed the sweet play within the play and like Tom and Jocelyn, just rolled with it, into the aisles.

Sylvia is a winner, and as a New York Times reviewer said in an original synopsis, probably one of the most critic proof and enduring plays written by Gurney. It is, as it has always been – since it opened on Broadway in the mid-nineties with Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead role – an utterly delightful romp through the dog park and poop-filled corridors of our unadorned, raw and manic psyches.

Follows showed an impeccable feel for character development. And he allowed Jocelyn the freedom to work with the role.

Over the top? Never. We like our dogs witty, wonderful and wise. And scratchy, sheddy, and gas-passing. And I’m pretty sure that everyone fell in love with Sylvia Monday night.

Kudos to Greg and Kate, who find fulfillment and love and rejuvenation.

We won’t spoil the ending. Suffice to say. If you weren’t reaching for a hankie, you don’t know dogs.

We’re all just a little wiser and happier for knowing Sylvia.

Now, up boys and girls! Stand up for Sylvia, dammit!

Good boys! Good girls. Here’s a treat. No wait … you just got it!

SYLVIA By A. R. Gurney; directed by Laurence Follows; sets by Lynne Hyde; costume designer, Melissa Stephens; lighting by Craig Saunders; sound John Page; production stage manager, Jenna Dibblee. WITH: Jocelyn Regina (Sylvia), Brian Kipping (Greg), Lesley English (Kate) and Tom Regina (Tom/Phyllis/ Leslie)
Presented by Highlands Summer Festival, artistic producer; Scot Denton, president, Jack Brezina.

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