True North Theatre’s ‘Sylvia’ delightfully tells the tale of a man and his dog

Empty-nesters Greg and Kate are at a crossroads in their marriage. She faces new challenges in her career teaching Shakespeare in a New York City middle school. He is in a midlife crisis and at odds with the demands of his boss.

Enter Sylvia, a canine vixen who steals Greg’s time, attention and his heart, much to Kate’s dismay and disdain.

The twist in A.R. Gurney’s comedy “Sylvia” is that the dog is played by a woman. That makes Greg’s relationship with Sylvia appear a bit more intimate, at least emotionally, than if she were portrayed by a puppet or by a dog voiced by a human.

True North Theatre’s production of “Sylvia” at the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre at the University of Maine is heartwarmingly funny without being sappy. The intimate theater space inside the pavilion, where the audience sits above and on three sides of the set, allows theatergoers to feel as if they are observing Sylvia and Greg from a park bench and peering into the couple’s apartment from across a courtyard.

Most pet owners, especially those who talk to their animals convinced that they comprehend every word uttered, will recognize something very familiar in Greg’s interactions with Sylvia.

Kate’s reluctance to embrace the dog may be recognizable to the partners of some enthusiastic pet owners, but her slow acceptance of Sylvia would be a relationship breaker for most dog lovers.

“Sylvia” opened off-Broadway in 1995 with the part of the dog played by Sarah Jessica Parker of “Sex and the City” fame. It did not premiere on Broadway until 20 years later, but has been popular with regional and community theater audiences since the late 1990s in spite of criticism that having a woman play a dog is demeaning.
Director Tellis “Telly” Coolong wisely focuses his production on Sylvia (Holly Costar) rather than Greg (Blane Shaw) and Kate (Stacy Oswald), who quite frankly are deadly dull without her.

Sylvia the dog (Holly Costar) checks her “messages” as adopted owner Greg (Blane Shaw) walks her in New York City in True North Theatre’s production of A.R. Gurney’s play “Sylvia.” Credit: Chris Dougherty

Coolong wrings every laugh out of the script and uses the Pavilion stage well to keep the story moving. He and his technical crew turn the former sheep barn into a welcoming cityscape.

Costar gives an energetic performance as Sylvia that is delightfully charming. She spends much of the show on her hands and knees, while wearing some protective padding. Her movements lovingly mimic a dog’s. She rolls in the grass, jumps on the furniture, checks for “messages” on a fire hydrant.

Her best scene comes in the Second Act when Greg has Sylvia “fixed” after she had too close an encounter with a male dog. After her turn as a moorhen this summer in True North’s production of “The Moors,” Costar could make a career out of portraying animals on stage.

Jenny Hart plays three roles in the play but truly shines as Tom, the owner of Sylvia’s canine love interest, Bowser. Hart, who last year appeared in the Penobscot Theatre Company’s productions of “Hockey Mom” and “Clarkston” at the Bangor Opera House, is convincingly male.

Tom and Greg have nothing in common other than their gender and their dogs. But they bond and become friends over their dogs, which happens all over the world when strangers meet while walking their furry friends.

Shaw and Oswald have little spark but they realistically portray a long-married couple who find themselves going in different directions. He gives Greg a weariness that only lifts when he is with Sylvia. She manages to make Kate sympathetic in her desire not to be tied down by a dog.

With “Sylvia,” True North Theatre cements its reputation as Greater Bangor’s premiere community theater company due to its consistency.
The organization has chosen quality scripts with finely drawn characters since its first production in 2018 of “The Lion in Winter” to its stunning execution of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” the following year and the hysterical pre-pandemic “The Odd Couple.”

That has allowed its directors to focus on creating rich ensembles that give depth and heft to the plays’ characters rather than creating razzle-dazzle special effects or epic fright scenes. Admittedly, both would be tough to do in the Cyrus Pavilion’s intimate space but it is True North’s focus on character and dialogue that make its work nearly always impeccable.

There were only about a dozen people at the Saturday night performance. The cast, director and crew for “Sylvia” deserve a full house.

If your dog sleeps on your bed or curls up next to you on the sofa on game day, you need to see this show just so you understand that you aren’t the only dog owner who treats pets as if they are human beings with four legs.

“Sylvia” will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Cyrus Pavilion at the University of Maine. Masks are strongly recommended for evening performances and required for the matinee. Tickets are available at the door or may be purchased online with a link on True North Theatre’s Facebook page.

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