What is more important than a man and his dog? This is the question posed by Camarillo Skyway Playhouse's latest offering A. R. Gurney's "Sylvia." On the surface, the 2 act play is about a regular guy named Greg, a simple man reaching that time in his life where one needs a change. That change isn't a fancy sports car or audacious motorbike; he gets a dog (Sylvia), much to the chagrin of his wife, Kate.
But that's only the surface, and like any dog worth it's kibble, we want to dig deeper and get down to the bones. And get down to them they do. First-time director Kimberly Demmary guides the core trio of this story masterfully to reach a little deeper. You would never guess this was her shining debut as she expertly allows her actors to fully explore this absurdist bit of comedy gold. Beneath the simplistic story we see Gurney asking the questions and struggling with the concepts so cliche to a classic mid-life crisis: Virility, Fidelity and finding what we truly want in life.
Greg is played by Todd Tickner- a resident talent at Camarillo Skyway- putting forth his dependently consistent performance. It is rife with double takes, belly laughs, a patriotic speech and a surprisingly touching teary moment. He does well as the straight man to the bouncy and bubbly Genevieve Levin who shines as the titular character. The effervescent Levin's real triumph is in her full physical, mental and emotional embodiment of Sylvia. From lights up, her commitment to the character (without use of the easy cliche panting and bent "puppy paw" wrists) is perfectly fleshed out. So much so that the suggested tongue-in-cheek nod at "is she/isn't she" (a dog) is never fully pondered by the audience. My favorite scene- in which Silvia reacts to a feline foe, Levin dominates the stage. It is by far the single best part of the show. Tickner is tasked with literally dragging her off the stage to an up-roaring ovation from the crowd. All despite the vulgar and abusive language thrown in their general direction. (Note: not a show to bring the kids to, no matter how much they love puppies.)
Tickner and Levin show us a translated communication between man and his best friend that would be a wonderful treat, if we didn't also see the pain it causes in his marriage. Kate (played by L. J. Stevens) is unable to reconcile sharing her husband with this new “woman.” Stevens brilliantly shows us all the stages of grief with my favorite being her drunken version of despair. We have all seen "drunk" on stage before and most of the time it's not pretty, and not nearly as accurately subtle as Stevens portrays it whilst commiserating with her friend, Phyllis (played by the chameleon-like Bill Sweeney.)
Sweeney actually played 3 different parts in this show. The toxic-ly masculine, Tom at the dog park, the aforementioned uptight friend, Phyllis, and (my favorite) the androgynous therapist, Leslie. Each part executed with a measured level of camp to help underscore the overall tone of the show. With these characters Sweeney embodies all tertiary persons that surround the family at the center of the plot. The difficulty of such a task, and to Sweeney’s credit, is ensuring these characters mold a unique and different take on life, each with an individual voice. This was done successfully by Sweeney and even reminded me of Fred Armisen’s character work in his Portlandia series.
One more thing I should mention, not only is the show a directorial debut, but it also celebrates the debut of lighting designer, Wesley Umali. While he may not be old enough for a driver’s license, he's not afraid to try some tricks in his first go around as board op. His unconventional use of isolated house lights orchestrated with the actor's movements around the audience, and a gorgeous color changing backlight which accurately demonstrates the time of day, really displays to us that he has some bright ideas (had to, sorry) and he's not shy about taking chances.
I strongly urge to see this show. A great cast, wonderful laughs and a heartwarming tale will make you happy to have been a part of this magical production. You may want to pick up some treats for your dog on the way home too. Sylvia runs at Camarillo Skyway Playhouse until May 6th. Show are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm.