Paws a Moment for SYLVIA


During the evening I caught SYLVIA at Manoa Valley Theatre, an elderly couple (jokingly!) called me out on my reactions to the production. They were sitting in the house center section of the house, close to the aisle, and I was the only one on house left for about four rows. Thus, my reactions were pretty obviously mine. The couple had said they enjoyed catching me “chortling,” and I told them, “how could I not? I work with dogs as my day job.” From there, we exchanged stories about dogs and how the production seemed to nail the spirit and voice of a dog more than anything else we’ve seen recently. Behold, dogs and theatre: bringing communities together.

Manoa Valley Theatre kicks off its 2019-2020 season with A.R. Gurney’s romantic comedy, SYLVIA, directed by Stephanie Conching. It’s currently running through October 6.

The premise of the play is simple: Greg (Peter Togawa) is a middle-aged businessman that is over his soul-sucking job. One afternoon, he finds a dog (Christine Lamborn) with no leash, and a collar that reads “Sylvia,” and brings her back home. The two get along fantastically, as Greg finds something new and wholesome in his life again and Sylvia finds herself with a loving owner, a shelter above her head, and food to eat. Pieces begin to fall when Greg’s wife, Kate (Cindy Shea) finds the dog to be a nuisance. As a teacher trying to teach Shakespeare to an inner city school, she is often working at home, and Sylvia often gets in the way of that. Greg takes Sylvia around the city, where they take midnight walks together and go to the park, where Greg meets the owner of Bowser, a stud of a dog, Tom (Stu Hirayama). Kate tries to confide in her friend, Phyllis (Hirayama), and finally a marriage counselor, Leslie (Hirayama) in order to find some solace (or a way to get Sylvia out) because she and Sylvia, and thus Greg, cannot see eye to eye. Will the couple be able to reconcile anything? Do they even belong together? What will Sylvia do?

It’s obvious Gurney knows dogs, and Lamborn has taken the script and ran away with it in her performance. Her spirit and commitment to Sylvia is amazing as she delivers a performance that is both human and canine in nature. There is a wonderful dynamic of being canine in most aspects and human in the rest that allows the audience to see not just the humanity, but the heart and soul of what a dog like Sylvia could be feeling and saying. Her comedic timing is flawless, and the jokes (both dialogue driven and physical) she espoused landed with aplomb. Lamborn shines as the titular character of the show, and meeting her halfway is Shea as Kate. Kate has the unfortunate predicament of being the most logical person in the production, as she calls out Greg on his midlife crisis and is driven up the wall by this dog that is clearly driving her marriage apart. Shea brings an honest and real take to the table, fighting for every inch that is rightfully hers in the apartment (and the script). She is strong and fitting for the school teacher role she is cast as, and equally as dynamic and well-cast when we begin to see the cracks in Kate’s armor as she is slowly unraveled by this seeming uphill battle against Sylvia. The situation, while humorous and sitcom-like in its premise, clearly affects Shea as Kate, who is rocked to her core and back.

I wish that Togawa were a bit more receptive and open in his performance as Shea was, but I recognize the script did not necessarily call for that. However, Togawa’s performance felt surface and did not go as deep as Shea’s, and thus despite the ups and downs he took with Sylvia (i.e. getting jealous when Sylvia devotes more attention to another dog to a park than him) and with Kate (i.e. the few times he and Kate actually saw eye to eye), I didn’t believe the emotional arc his character took. Finally, Hirayama was initially funny as overly-knowledgeable Tom who helps Greg at the dog park, but I wish the direction given to him were a bit different when he was Phyllis and Leslie. The three characters rang too similar to each other, and I do wish there more dynamic takes on all three, separating them a bit clearer.

MJ Matsushita’s set design was detailed and fantastic, taking the audience from Greg and Kate’s apartment to the airport, to the park, and finally to Leslie’s marriage counsel office. Rachel Sorensen’s lighting design went hand in hand, helping shape the production and smartly bringing the audience to midnight New York with just a few key light choices. Jennifer Hart and Trudy Hodenfield’s costume design alongside Lisa Ponce de Leon’s hair and makeup design is excellent and inspired, as we see the team realistically clothe/do-up all the humans in setting/emotional appropriate looks throughout the entire show, and constructing the look of Sylvia so well. Sylvia herself even has a few different looks, representative of her different stages of life with Greg (and when she stopped off at the groomer).

Light-hearted, fun, and definitely something that dog-lovers will love, SYLVIA is playing at Manoa Valley Theatre through October 6. For tickets, click here.