by Sarah Haley
As humans, we have always had a fondness for dogs. Indeed, they are (wo)man’s best friend. Ottawa Little Theatre’s season opener, Sylvia by A.R. Gurney,is the story of the bond between a man and the stray dog he rescues. Billed as a comedy with a similar plotline to the musical Annie, it is actually about the bizarre love triangle between a middle-aged man, his wife, and a dog. A polished production, it features strong performances but suffers from a script that does not suit the present day.
Director Chantale Plante’s production of Sylvia is cohesive and comedic. This is due in no small part to the production’s minute ensemble of actors. As the dog of the eponymous play, Emily Walsh shows a knack for physicality and endurance. She maintains a dog’s level of intensity throughout the performance without faltering despite her near-constant presence on stage. With her high energy and aptitude for comedic timing, Walsh shines on stage. Unfortunately, this is a detriment to the performance overall. Walsh’s high energy and rambunctious mirroring of a dog’s behaviour is a distraction on stage. It is easy to drift away from the narrative and focus on Sylvia, who like a dog, is always doing something in the background.
Amanda Jonz and Paul Williamson in the respective roles of Kate and Greg perform with intelligence and work in collaboration to cultivate the couple’s relationship and its strains. However, their storyline is tedious and their scenes together feel like the fraught ventings of a couple’s therapy session. It is because of the tedium of Greg and Kate that a disparity is created between the scenes that feature Sylvia and the ones that don’t. It is a useful juxtaposition as it highlights the fractures in Greg and Kate’s relationship, but it lacks the energy that is maintained by the presence of Sylvia. The exception to this is the scenes featuring Lawrence Evenchick in his many capacities. A strong comedic performer, Evenchick lands many of the jokes of the show and provides the relief from Greg’s midlife crisis and his growing attachment to his dog.
However, Evenchick’s roles are also a hindrance to this production. Often saddled with insensitive jokes, Evenchick’s three roles highlight the issues within the script that prove the play’s age. The fellow dog walker, Tom, lays the sexist jokes and commentaries on thick. The Marriage counselor, Leslie, is the butt of jokes about mental health. Finally, Kate’s socialite friend Phyllis is the foil to jokes about alcoholism and relapse. The play is littered with jokes made in poor taste. Jokes about addiction and mental health, sexism, rape, and slut-shaming should have no place in the Ottawa theatre scene. While there are brief attempts to redeem the play from the jokes, like Greg’s brief speech on female empowerment, it all feels like it’s all too little, too late.
It is because of the onslaught of jokes made it poor taste that Evenchick’s role as Phyllis the socialite feels out of place. While genderbending roles have historically been popular (and can often be necessary) in theatre, there needs to be a clear reason to deploy this trope. Rather than change the role of Phyllis to a man, the conscious decision to have a man dress up to impersonate a woman feels like a caricature. Paired with the rampant sexism, which includes the common trope of two women fighting over a man (or in this case, a woman and a dog), the cross-dressing feels like a satire about people who identify as women.
From the depiction of women who descend to a Hobbesian state of being to compete for the attentions of a man, to the uncomfortable and quasi-romantic relationship between Greg and his dog, it all becomes a little too much. It is the umpteenth attempt to make a privileged man’s midlife crisis seem interesting. Despite the glaring flaws of the script, it is a light-hearted comedy that feature a funny and collaborative cast. While the dog days of summer may be coming to a close, it is clear that we are not yet out of the dog days of hurtful jokes and sexist tropes.
By A.R. Gurney
Directed by Chantale Plante
September 12-29, 2018 at Ottawa Little Theatre
Featuring: Lawrence Evenchick, Amanda Jonz, Emily Walsh, and Paul Williamson
Set Design by Graham Price
Lighting Design by Cameron A. Macdonald
Music Composition and Performance by Riley Stewart
Properties by Jennifer Barkley
Costume Design by Guylaine Roy
Sarah Haley is a student at Carleton University. She is currently pursuing a degree in English Literature with concentrations in Medieval Studies and Theatre.