BWW Review: Fortune Wags Its Tail at Element Theatre Company's SYLVIA
The idea of being happy is something so universal, so necessary to the basic structure of life, it cannot be limited to human beings, even if we think of happiness as something humanly sought. But think of all the forms of happiness to be found elsewhere, like that of a dog when his master returns home. Think of the pure joy when this dog is not only provided her favorite company, but the promise of food and all that comes with having a home - something so many animals lack. Yet, when this dog becomes "one of the family" and unconsciously (or perhaps intentionally...) usurps attention, breaks the mutuality of marriage and disrupts the hierarchy of what already was, trouble starts to brew. Where the dog makes the husband happy, she makes the wife jealous - the dog's almost human characteristics set the scene for an existential showdown.
This dog - Sylvia - is the title character of this charismatic comedy for a reason.
With time spent on Broadway, off-Broadway and on stages from France to China, A.R. Gurney's Sylvia is now in performances at Elements Theatre Company at Rock Harbor. It is the epitome of taking something that is seemingly normal and turning it into a drama-filled, heartfelt tale of what it means to be (and feel) human. Directed by Danielle Dwyer, CJ and in memory of the late Gurney, this show truly goes above and beyond to tell a story that is so much more than that of a dog who finds an aging man in the park, followed by his wife's jealousy of his affection towards this stray. It is a touching story about the indisputable need to be loved, and how figuring out why we love the way we do concerns so much more than the bond man shares with his canine friend.
Sylvia is full of those little moments that, when put together, allows this beautiful insight into not only how a dog can change a person's life in unforeseeable ways, but also how human emotions are contributable to the reasons why such love is so freely given by both animal and human alike. Sylvia, as a dog, is a hybrid of animal instinct and human feeling, characterized more so as the third person in the family than the most recent canine addition. She is almost haphazardly introduced to her new master, given to him without a past, with a pesky flea problem and with only the name of "Sylvia" to identify her. Yet, she is presented in a way most friends are made, and only through knowing a person do we understand who she is; in this case, Sylvia becomes something before the audience's eyes - to both herself and the man who loves her.
Sylvia begins when a stray dog (Sylvia) finds Greg as he sits in the park after an argument with his boss. Greg takes Sylvia home and is immediately confronted by his wife, who believes they are not in the position to adopt a dog. On-the-rise socialites and recent transplants to New York City, Kate says they won't have time for Sylvia. Finally, after Kate begrudgingly agrees to a trial run, Greg refuses to give Sylvia up; his love for a dog he barely knows truly knows no bounds. In what the audience discovers is the start of an existential crisis, Greg begins to question his job and his life, in awe of how Sylvia has changed how he thinks, and essentially everything he is. Against the wishes of his wife, who never truly accepts Sylvia as just "the dog," Greg fights with his love for a woman who is questionably as important to him as his wife...if only the same species.
Elements has done such a wonderful job in showing the reason for love with this production, whether that comes from human or dog. This production has heightened the emotions of both to make this so upsetting yet also so touching a story; the audience is torn between empathizing with a fellow human and trying to see Sylvia as the dog that she is when things are clearly not that simple. This cast shows so completely the difficulty in not only understanding people, but also understanding why we do what we do to those around us.
Sylvia is the catalyst for an existential crisis - she makes people question change and why they are acting less and less human because of her. As she becomes more like a person, the people around her believe they are caught in some crazy whirlwind of misunderstood feelings; to watch them try to figure out what should honestly be so simple is just fascinating. Elements has a knack for not only casting actors who are so emotionally charged and in perpetual disbelief of their own lack of control, but also taking the simplicity of a stray dog and posing this question, repeatedly and with such variance, throughout the course of the show: why do we choose to love the way we do?
To me, this show is truly something special; I am the biggest fan of the existential crisis, and watching new ways of bringing this issue to fruition is both, to me, mind boggling and wonderful. To question not what makes us happy, but why and towards what end using the simple presence of a dog (portrayed by a human) really has to make you think about who we are. Is it so irrational to love your dog as you do your partner? If dogs could talk as Sylvia can, express their feelings, would they be unhappy with the affection they are given? If people forget who is the dog and who is the human, do we become less human ourselves?
There is just so much in this show that, while hilarious, is also in theory not. Sarah Hale, Peter Haig and Blair Tingley come together to create such levity and feel moments of euphoria (and rage), only to be thwarted by what the underlying issues of this family turn out to be. Supremely talented actors bring about a show that is as affectionate as it is troubling, even to the three people (all played by Kyle Norman) who come into contact with (and are genuinely frightened by) this seemingly normal couple.
With a beautiful set and obvious effort put forth to make this production the success it is, everyone involved deserves the utmost praise. Although I cannot name all people involved, I will give general kudos to those on light, sound, costume, props, stage management and all others who made this quite the intriguing show to see. It will make you laugh as much as it will make you think (but really, we all came here to laugh), and it's a guarantee that this show will be loved.
Sylvia began performances at Elements Theatre Company (located at 5 Bay View Drive at Rock Harbor, Orleans) on August 11th, and will continue thru August 20th. For the play only, tickets are $35/$30 Seniors and free for 18 & under, while the play and dinner are $65/$60 Seniors and $30 for 18 & under. Tickets may be purchased by calling (508) 240.2400 or by visiting www.elementstheatre.org. Performances are August 11-13 & 18-20 at 7:30 pm, with pre-performance dinners held on August 12th and 19th @ 6:00; reservations are required.
Enjoy the show!
Photo Credit: Hans Olsen