Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Evergreen flexes theatrical muscles in ‘Sylvia’

Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Evergreen flexes theatrical muscles in ‘Sylvia’

A.R. Gurney’s play features a talking dog.

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – Today’s vocabulary word is anthropomorphize: To attribute human form or personality to. Porky Pig, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse – you get the idea.

Playwright A.R. Gurney anthropomorphizes in the play “Sylvia.” Sylvia is a dog – kind of a poodle, kind of a lab – who talks to her owner, swears a blue streak at cats, has the hots for Bowzer and gets in the way of a 22-year marriage.

The community troupe Evergreen Theatre is taking on “Sylvia” through May 10 in Webb Theatre at St. Norbert College in De Pere. Info: tickets.snc.edu.

***

Creative: Playwright – A.R. Gurney; director – Dave Zochert; stage manager – Dave Harper; set design – Michael Troyer and Mike Palubicki; costumes – Ruth Novak; lighting design – Jack Rhyner; props – Carrie Platten Liebhauser.

Cast: Sylvia – Rebecca Curran; Greg – Lyle Becker; Kate – Elaine Mannion; John and Leslie – Mark A. Jackson; Phyllis - Margaret Inez Diny.

***

“Sylvia” is the kind of play that Evergreen does well – plenty of grist for the acting mill, thoughtful yet playful, interesting, a certain degree of difficulty, theatrical.

Veteran director Dave Zochert is on hand to bring out the best in the excellent cast and production corps. There’s even a bit of zing in the costuming in the leading ladies; the person and dog have a suitable, stylish look for many occasions. Sylvia is a fashion hound (ha ha).

Playwright A.R. Gurney imagines this: Greg, a guy unsatisfied with his job in finance in New York City, comes home with a dog, Sylvia, who has befriended him in a park. Greg wants to keep Sylvia; her unsolicited “I love you” is irresistible. Greg’s wife, Kate, says no to the dog – no, no, no. The dog stays. Greg promises this and that amid his mastery of excuses about his behavior in general; there’s trouble at work, and he’s into mid-life navel contemplation. Kate doesn’t hate Sylvia, though it’s close. Greg and Sylvia go on long walks. They talk. But Sylvia understands only so far; waxing philosophical is not her strong suit. Sylvia wants to be with Greg and for Greg to take care of her; Kate can get lost.

The play is funny in its core thingie: A talking dog. That at least brings a smile. The humor is often sly and through the side door, though. The talking dog is messing with a marriage. “Sylvia” is more of an, “Ah-ha, that’s a clever take on things,” than being a knee-slapper.

And situations turn. The show includes a song, a wonderful old standard from Cole Porter:

Everytime we say goodbye, I die a little,
Everytime we say goodbye, I wonder why a little,
Why the gods above me, who must be in the know,
Think so little of me, they allow you to go.

When Sylvia – alone at home on the sofa that Kate forbids her to lie on – sings the melancholy song, it’s comical. When Greg next sings the song, there are dual layers, one with a meaning for Sylvia and one for Kate, who Greg has accompanied to the airport for Kate’s flight to a work-related function. When Kate next sings the song, there’s only one meaning, and that’s for Greg and her sadness on parting.

Fine acting abounds in the production. Rebecca Curran appealingly dons the doggie characteristics of Sylvia through their wild swings – the sheer love for Greg, dismissive disapproval for Kate, pure lust for Bowzer (imaginary character), insane and embarrassing attraction for the visiting Phyllis (Margaret Inez Diny). Lyle Becker finesses the nuances of the somewhat goofy Greg and his teetering balancing act in life. Elaine Mannion defines the practical Kate with a determined air – a modern woman at a point of achievement in her life, and now her husband has gone awry with a nuisance of a stray dog that sheds. Mark A. Jackson carries two crackling roles. First, he’s John, the guy-guy “expert” in the park who owns Bowzer*. Then, he’s Kate’s analyst, Leslie, whose gender is up to whatever individual clients decide. Leslie is, whew, quite the character.

The play is from 1995, and Evergreen has modernized it a little to put it into today for the humans. Talking dogs say the same thing in any time period.

It’s quite a good show, 4½ stars out of 5, especially for the theatrically inclined.

* There’s a subtle reference with the name Bowzer. The first time that John, the dog’s owner, is seen, he’s wearing a T-shirt that says “SHA NA NA” on the front. Sha Na Na was the name of a hit rock/do-wop group whose featured singer/performer/character was Bowzer.

NEXT SEASON (tentative): Mainstage: “Wait Until Dark,” “A Mostly Minnesota Christmas,” “Inherit the Wind,” “Incorruptible.” Young Adult: “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” “The Snow Queen.”

THE VENUE: The 184-seat Neil and Mary Webb Memorial Theatre is the smaller of two theaters in St. Norbert College’s Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts. The Webb stage is one-of-a-kind thrust stage, meaning it “thrusts” into the audience space. A traditional proscenium stage has a flat front and usually has curtains. A trust stage rarely uses curtains. People in front rows can practically reach out and touch performers when the performers are on the stage lip. Any seat in the theater is close to the action.

THE PEOPLE: Neil and Mary Webb were husband and wife. Neil Webb was president of St. Norbert College from 1973 to 1983. He earlier headed the St. Norbert psychology department. He left academics for a while before becoming president of Dominican College in California. In December 1987, Neil and Mary Webb died in an airplane crash in California in an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee. That was shortly before the Hall of Fine Arts was to be remodeled with a small theater in the plans. Neil Webb had a lot of friends in the community and had the reputation, so his name was used to raise funds for the theater.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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