By Sheryl Aronson
Tanna Frederick, theater and film actress, directs and stars in the production of Sylvia, A.R. Gurney’s hit comedy, which opened on October 21st at the Odyssey Theater in West LA. Stephen Howard, Beege Barkette and Matthew Marcy co-star.
“I have a need,” Greg blurts out to his wife Kate when she looks at him with exasperation and asks why he brought home the stray dog Sylvia. The need is of man, craving a companion by his side, who just is there. No demands. No criticism. Unconditional love.
Dogs are a man’s best friend. This sentiment has echoed throughout the centuries. Playwright A.R. Gurney sniffs around the reasons why as the audience watches Greg travel through an inner odyssey of connection to himself by befriending Sylvia, the dawg. Sylvia needs Greg and Greg wants to be needed.
Interestingly, in the Greek Myth the Odyssey (c. 8th century BC), upon Odysseus‘ return, his beloved dog Argos is the only individual to recognize him. Without a doubt, Greg feels recognized by Sylvia’s unflappable devotion. She thinks he’s God…loves him even if he’s an asshole or swats her with a newspaper… any dog owner knows those adoring looks of acceptance. A primitive connection occurs and perhaps man finally recognizes himself through that love.
From the moment, Sylvia rushes across the threshold of her new home with Greg, sniffing the furniture and recklessly throwing belongings on the floor, Tanna Frederick, transforms into man’s best friend with utter abandonment. With every twitch on her face, every movement of her limbs, every worshipping gaze toward her owner, the audience is now in the presence of “that dawg.” Her copper hair is strung up in pigtails and Frederick sports a beige wool sweater with fur like balls covering it, and matching brown form fitting pants, paw-like gloves covering the hands. The veteran actress struts a lanky, loose gait as Sylvia jumps up wildly into Greg’s arms or falls over on her head with legs up in the air, or sexily patters off to play with Bowser, her favorite male dog. One is mesmerized by the intricacies of Frederick’s acting which reflects an innate knowledge of a dog’s behavior – effusively anthropomorphizing Sylvia into a brilliant foil for the couple’s failing relationship.
Tanna Frederick commented, “At the end of the day, we all want to be petted in the right place, fed and loved,” as she summed up one of the themes of Sylvia.
Greg and Kate also want to be petted in the right place emotionally as they struggle with their relationship. Greg feels lost and disconnected to his life…Kate feels empowered finally as a working woman out in the world, but can’t connect to her husband’s love.
Beege Barkette, who plays Kate stated, “My role is one that everyone wants to hate so itwas hard to pull off. I’m the straight man to all the romping around onstage. I chose to play Kate as…’I’m here to save my marriage at all costs.’ I’m on that journey with all my mind.”
Barkette embodies the character of Kate, the elegant coiffed, driven, intelligent, NYC woman, quite effectively. However, the actress also shows off her comedic skills when she drinks too much wine and displays rubbery legs, or when Barkette falls on all fours, thrusts her face into Sylvia’s as a warning to lay off her man.
“I see the play as a fable with all kinds of life’s lessons in it…such as are you going to stay together after 22 years of marriage, are you bored with each other or are you going to make it work.”
The unraveling of Greg’s character as he transforms from a responsible business man, husband/father into a philosophical, primitive, obsessed dog owner is expertly executed by Steve Howard. The job is daunting because many times, Sylvia (Tanna) jumps up on his body and he carries her like one carries their dog, he constantly pets her, scratches her, and allows his most loving best friend to lead him on a leash.
Steve Howard said, “There are so many wonderful conflicts in the play. When looking at real life, couples have all these problems and we don’t know how to solve them. The dog comes into the couple’s life and ends up solving their problem. It’s that unconditional love that one craves so much and with a dog, it’s so easy. Also the fact that Greg believes that the dog understands him so completely, leads to his own self- discovery.”
Matthew Marcy played three pivotal roles in Sylvia which required impeccable comedic skills. First he played Tom, the sensitive/macho dog owner. Tom foreshadows Greg’s dilemma on the park bench when they are watching Sylvia and Bowser romp around. “You give a dog a woman’s name, you start to look at it as a woman…” When Greg gazes confusingly at Tom, the wise/philosophical dog owner says, “Always remember your dog is only a dog.”
Later in the play, the actor enters the stage as Kate’s socialite friend Phyllis. Donning a long black skirt, high heels, a blonde wig with stunning makeup, and standing at 6ft 4, Marcy lets it all hang out…he flicks Phyllis’s blonde locks back, squishes up her face, repulsed by Sylvia’s lack of manners, and looks girlish when revealing intimate secrets of Phyllis’s marriage to Kate. His facial expressions, exaggerated body language, and repeating the phrase, “you mean that dawg” with a nasal NY accent caused side splitting laughter.
Finally, he plays Leslie, the transgender therapist. One of the funniest scenes in the play is watching Leslie trying to maintain her calm therapeutic demeanor by breathing and doing visualizations, while Greg rants about his love for Sylvia, instead of his love for Kate.
Matthew Marcy talked about playing these three roles, “ It was a lot of fun playing all these roles. The makeup really helped and the makeup artist was phenomenal. I never played a woman before, and I really wanted all the characters to be distinctive with different voices and mannerisms. I like Leslie the most. The other two characters I play are over the top in their personalities, but Leslie is the most intimidating and the most grounded. I had to have different clothing layers ready for all the costume changes.”
All the action took place on a set that was cleverly designed by Mark Kenieff. The apartment held all white, leather furniture yet there was a cozy environment instilled. I noticed enclosed art installations carved in the wall which lit up from time to time. When I asked the set designer, Mark Kenieff what was he trying to convey here, he said, “I see the characters as idealizing other people’s lives. The wife wants to get into high society. The husband romanticizes what nature is like. So I was thinking …they’re looking at other peoples’ lives in the City…so what is an idolized environment? A doll house. You can set up the environment to be perfect, the way you want it to be, but real life isn’t.”
He ended by chuckling and then saying, “They all have little dogs in them.”
Right. Dogs. Man’s best friend. Whether you are a dog lover or not,
Sylvia thoroughly takes the audience on a delightful walk through the park of one couple’s life.
Tanna Frederick summed up the production as the director/actor of Sylvia.
“I’m very much in love with this play and feel very passionate about it. I feel lucky to be doing this show again and to be doing it in Los Angeles – to be giving my interpretation of this show, what I think it’s all about…which is heart, humanity and hounds.”
I think I will go ask Strutt (my dog) if he wants to go out for a walk now. Ruff. Ruff.
Sylvia is playing at the Odyssey Theater.
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Photo Credit: Sheryl Aronson/The Hollywood 360