Front Row Reviews

“Sylvia” Portrays The Bond of Canine Companionship

David Shirk (Greg), Melody Payne (Sylvia) all photos by Miller Oberlin

A.R. Gurney introduces us to “Sylvia,” a canine rescue that steals the show at Sonoma Arts Live. A truth well-known to most dog owners: Introducing four-legged friends into any family inevitably alters the whole family dynamic. Sylvia, played by tail-wagging, couch-stealing, overly-affectionate human, Melody Payne, barrels her way into her new family and into our hearts.

Payne’s portrayal deserves accolades akin to an Energizer Bunny award for her boundless energy humanizing the endearing traits of our dogs. Despite my initial skepticism of casting a woman as a dog and the old-fashion play of two women vying for a man’s attention, Sylvia effortlessly steals the spotlight.

A.R. Gurney’s 1995 work carries traces of sexism, but my reservations were quickly overshadowed by the play’s humor and the heartwarming bond between dog and owner. The audience’s reaction of “Ahs” and “Ohs” amid the laughter echoes the audience’s feelings.

How often do dog lovers anthropomorphize their pets? Yes, often. Despite the predictability of the plot and its eventual resolution, the play is elevated by the charming portrayal of Sylvia, brought to life with remarkable detail through Kate Leland’s exquisite dog costumes. Sylvia models a red velvet garb befitting a French Poodle, and speaks French!

Elite Greg, well-played by David Shirk, struggles with a mid-life crisis. While strolling in Central Park, he finds a stray, Sylvia, and it is love at first sight. Greg immediately decides to bring Sylvia home to meet his wife, career focused Kate. Stoic Kate, played by talented Jill Zimmerman teaches Shakespeare to inner-city teens.

However, Kate’s initial annoyance at Sylvia’s intrusion, dismissed as a mere “possible Poodle mix,” intensifies as she witnesses the unmistakable obsessive bond between her husband and the dog. Desiring freedom from the responsibilities of dog ownership, Kate’s frustration mounts, compounded by Sylvia’s exuberant antics, which constantly challenge her patience. She and Greg argue about their future. Kate calls Sylvia, “Saliva”, and quotes terse Shakespeare lines to the audience, indignant and angry at Greg, at the end of scenes.

                                            Melody Payne (Sylvia), Jill Zimmerman (Kate)

Each scene unfolds with humor underscored by musical interludes like the nostalgic “Me and Mrs. Jones,” and the sentimental “Every time We Say Goodbye.” The various Music and Sounds by Ellen Peterson and Carl Jordan deepen the evolving dynamics between the characters.

The minimalist set, crafted by Director Carl Jordan, comes alive through clever projections showcasing the condo complex, the New York City skyline, and the serene beauty of Central Park. At the forefront, a leather couch, recliner, and Kate’s work desk set the scene for the unfolding drama.

As Greg and Sylvia become regulars at the nearby dog park, they encounter the outspoken Tom, portrayed by the macho Mike Pavone, who embodies the essence of a quintessential New Yorker. Tom’s musings on the true nature of “Canis Americanus” dog from wolf, provide both comic relief and insight into the canine psyche, and their primitive urges, while Sylvia humps Bowser behind bushes.

                                                      Mike Pavone (Tom, Phyllis, Leslie), David Shirk (Greg)

Pavone seamlessly transitions into two other roles: Leslie, a comically sexually ambiguous marriage counselor dressed in black and white. She offers unconventional advice to Kate amidst Grieg’s uproariously funny love monologue about Sylvia. Leslie suggests Kate “divorce Greg and buy a gun to shoot the dog.” Not only does Pavone embody Leslie with aplomb, but also Phyllis, Kate’s pretentious East Side friend, exuding an air of entitlement and disdain with note-perfect flair.

Carl Jordan’s direction is amazing. Keeping the pace tight, and the timing and flow of humor perfect.  The acting impressed me, especially the naturalism of the characters. Payne as a dog that resembled my Black Lab was hysterical. 

Don’t miss a night of hilarity and touching scenes. Experience how a dog can change one’s life for the better. You may even want to go and rescue a four-legged canine friend, or maybe another. Either way, Sonoma Arts Live does it again. A sure winner of Comedy.

“Sylvia” written by A.R. Gurney, directed by Carl Jordan, at Sonoma Arts Live,, Somona, California, to Sunday, February 18th.

cast: David Shirk, Mike Pavone, Melody Payne, Jill Zimmerman