Friday, September 14, 2012

‘Sylvia' unleashes her inner canine

Angelica Duncan as Sylvia and Micheal O'Hara as Greg in "Silvia" at Tacoma Little Theatre. Photo by Dean Lapin

Greg (Micheal O’Hara) picks fleas off Sylvia (Angelica Duncan) in “Sylvia” at Tacoma Little Theatre. Photo by Dean Lapin

Tacoma Little Theatre opens its 2012-13 season with the very adult comedy “Sylvia” by A.R. Gurney, directed by Elliot Weiner.
The News Tribune, Sept. 14, 2012

Tacoma Little Theatre opens its 2012-13 season with the very adult comedy “Sylvia” by A.R. Gurney, directed by Elliot Weiner.

Sylvia is a dog, and pre-opening promotions led me to expect something like “Animal Farm” or “Winnie the Pooh” or a canine version of the rabbit in “Harvey.”

But Angelica Duncan as Sylvia doesn’t wear a dog costume and she portrays Sylvia in a manner that is simultaneously all-dog and thoroughly human.

She is absolutely delightful and hysterical. I loved her every move, from nuzzling and licking her owner to wiggling her hind quarters and humping the guests. And when she spots a cat under a car and starts shouting profanities at it, she is quite shocking and funny. Bits like this one are so startling that you can’t quit laughing long enough to realize she just did something nasty.

The thing is, Sylvia’s reaction to almost everything is surprising and funny like that.

The program warns that this play contains adult language and crude humor, and it most definitely does. Yet I can’t imagine anyone being offended by any of it because it’s just what normally happens with dogs and humans. I do think the language is too rough for young children.

Greg (Micheal O’Hara) and his wife, Kate (Dayna Childs), are upper middle class New Yorkers who have moved from the suburbs to the city to address their empty-nest syndrome. She’s an English professor and he’s a disgruntled financier.

He brings home a stray dog, Sylvia, who disrupts their marriage and forces them to re-evaluate everything. In many ways, Sylvia is a metaphor for the other woman in Greg’s life. It is amazing how human Sylvia is while simultaneously displaying canine characteristics any dog owner should easily recognize – a tribute to keen observation of both humans and animals on the part of the writer, the director, and, of course, the actor. Seldom in my years as a theater critic have I seen an actor bring such enthusiasm and energy to a part as Duncan brings to this role.

The rest of the cast is equally good.

O’Hara plays Greg as alternately ridiculous and loving. He goes completely overboard playing with Sylvia and then becomes very tender and vulnerable with Kate – when he’s not arguing with her.

Kate is not as engaging a character simply because she’s the only supposedly normal person in the play. She’s the glue that holds it all together, and Childs plays her convincingly.

The only other actor is Blake R. York as Tom, a man Greg meets at the dog park; as Phyllis, a hysterical friend of Kate’s; and as Leslie, a psychiatrist of ambivalent gender.

He beautifully and humorously melds into these three very different characters. When he comes on stage as Phyllis, he is not just a man in drag; he is as believably female as Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire” or Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie.” And when he becomes Leslie, he becomes a person who appears equally male and female.

York also is the set designer, and he has designed a lovely set with sparse furniture and door and window frames suspended in front of a black backdrop that becomes a lovely field of stars for night scenes.

And costume designer Michele Graves has created some marvelous outfits for Duncan and York.

The only thing about this play that isn’t praiseworthy is the maudlin talk to the audience in the final scene when Greg and Kate wrap everything up in a neat little package. Fortunately, it’s very brief.

When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 30
Where: Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N I St., Tacoma
Tickets: $14.50-$24.50
Information: 253-272-2281,

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