20 June 2017

Sylvia Review: Great Performances of a Dysfunctional Trio

A.R. Gurney’s play Sylvia takes a unique look at the relationship between a man and his dog. And a man and his wife. And all the problems that can arise from trying to love both. The play is funny, touching, and occasionally disturbing, and West Virginia Public Theatre (in cooperation with the WVU College of Creative Arts) gives a fantastic rendition of Gurney’s show. Under the direction of Jerry McGonigle, the show is well worth seeing.

Sylvia focuses on an upper middle class couple named Greg and Kate, whose have sent their kids to college and moved to New York City. They both have good jobs and things are going well. But then Greg brings home a dog, named Sylvia. This wouldn’t necessarily be that much of a problem, except for two things: Kate absolutely doesn’t want a dog, and Greg becomes completely devoted to Sylvia. He misses work and social engagements, and under the weight of his neglect their marriage suffers. Kate becomes increasingly concerned about Greg’s affection for Sylvia, and even Tom, Greg’s dog-owner-psychology quoting friend, warns Greg that it’s a big risk to give a dog a female name. Oh, and to make matters worse, Sylvia is played by a woman.

The cast of the WVPT production is the best element of the show, giving strong performances all around. Cassandra Hackbart gives a vivacious performance as Sylvia, offering the highest level of energy as she navigates the character’s mercurial mood swings. One moment she is jumping all over Greg (Joseph Olivieri) totally devoted to him, then the next moment she is terrified of being sent to the pound, then the next she is screaming abuse and obscenities at an off-stage cat. Constantly running around the stage, Hackbart brings a lively humor to the show, particularly with the dance routine meant to impress Kate (Cathy O’Dell) after Greg brings Sylvia back from the groomer. Hackbart’s Sylvia is performed somewhere between a dog and a child: devoted, playful, loving, but also prone to tantrums, and quick to change her mind.

Olivieri and O’Dell offer well matched performances as Greg and Kate. Their chemistry perfectly conveys a loving couple, devoted to one another, but on the rocks—in Kate’s opinion because of Greg’s midlife crisis. Both characters are hard to fully like, and hard to fully dislike—there isn’t a clear villain here—and both actors have moments where we feel deeply for them and moments where we detest them. For instance, in many of her interactions with Sylvia, Kate comes across as a shallow, jealous, and even irrational opponent of the dog. But then when she opens up to her friend Phyllis (Joe Mortimer), we see the depth of her love for her husband and how painful their marital problems are for her. O’Dell’s best scene comes near the end, when Greg is about to take Sylvia to the suburbs and give her away. Despite her loathing for the dog, Kate is deeply conflicted in this moment, and O’Dell shows that conflict simply and subtly, but in an unmistakably powerful way.

Olivieri offers similar fluctuations as Greg, often coming across as a devoted owner who genuinely cares about his dog, but also reading as callous and self-centered in his interactions with Kate. Greg is trying to find himself, rethinking/abandoning his job, finding a new lease on life through his relationship with Sylvia, and experiencing a midlife disillusionment with his existential condition: as he tells Sylvia, he’s facing either “the anxieties of late middle age or the disillusionment of late capitalism.” Olivieri shows these conflicting uncertainties through the confusion he brings to the character—the inability to get control of his excessive affection for his dog, punctuated by brief glimpses of the shambles his marriage and professional life are rapidly becoming. But even in his relationship with Sylvia, Greg is not always admirable. He willingly accepts that he’s a hero who saved her life, and even accepts it when Sylvia deifies him.

The fourth actor in the contingent is Mortimer, who plays all three of the minor roles: Tom the psychology quoting dog park denizen, Phyllis the snobbish alcoholic socialite whose husband has developed an unusual fondness for gold fish, and Leslie the androgynous therapist who recommends Kate get a divorce and shoot Sylvia. Mortimer is the comic relief of the play, performing these absurd roles with the most blatant humor of any performer. His dynamic performances both take us out of the immediate triad of Sylvia-Greg-Kate, and also offer an almost choric commentary on the main action of the play. For instance, Tom warns Greg about becoming too attached to Sylvia, particularly giving her a female name, but then another book he’s read suggests that their love for their dogs (to the exclusion of their wives) is genetic and therefore can’t be helped. These different tensions and ideas illuminate the main action of the show.

Through the prism of Greg’s relationship with Sylvia, Gurney explores a number of dynamics and problems, including issues of interpersonal relationships, the human divide from nature, and finding/forming one’s identity. The play challenges what it means to love, and to sacrifice for those we love. It also asks how we find meaning, happiness, and connection in the world—how do we find what makes us happy and balance that with making those we love happy?

The play runs 21-25 June at the Gladys G. Davis Theatre in the Creative Arts Center on WVU’s Evansdale Campus.
Performances begin at 7:30 PM on the 21-24 June and 2 PM on the 24-25 of June.
Tickets can be purchased by calling 304-293-SHOW, at a WVU box office location, or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com.
Tickets are $14-$26.

28 May 2017

Steel Magnolias, by Robert Harling

Following a group of women headquartered in a beauty salon in Louisiana, Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias has much in common with the stereotypical Lifetime movie. But that being said, it’s really quite excellent, and MT Pockets put on an outstanding production, directed by Seret Cole, with amazing performances by all of the cast members.

The key, heavy relationship of the story is between M’Lynn and her diabetic daughter Shelby. Although Shelby’s health is compromised she decides to have a baby with her new husband, despite her mother’s and doctor’s concerns that it will negatively impact her body. After the baby is born (three months premature) Shelby’s kidneys shut down and, following a period of dialysis, they determine that M’Lynn is a match for a kidney transplant. But the transplant fails, and Shelby slips into a coma and dies. Now, the medical drama happens off stage, but it colors much of the onstage action.

However, the play is punctuated by this heavy storyline—which is especially prominent in the last scene—but overall Steel Magnolias is a comedy. Most of the action that takes place in the beauty salon involves Southern sass, relationship cynicism, and mutual support. The beauty salon owner, Truvy, is the functional center of the clique, grounding some of the more outrageous personalities and moderating her employee Annelle’s increasing religious fervor. The other occupants of the parlor are Clairee, the football loving ex-mayor’s widow who buys the local radio station, and Ouiser, a curmudgeon with a mangy dog who spends most of the play grumping at Shelby’s father for shooting birds out of her magnolia tree (though the courts haven’t settled who owns the tree).

In most performances I’ve seen, there has been at least one weak link, one cast member who wasn’t as strong as the others. But in MT Pockets’ Steel Magnolias, everyone was fantastic. If I say that Cynthia Ulrich (M’Lynn) was probably the closest the show got to a standout performer, it’s because M’Lynn has the heaviest emotional role toward the end of the show. It is not to suggest that any of the other performers fell short in any way. M’Lynn is a dynamic and challenging character: in the opening scene she is the dignified yet miffed mother of the bride whose advice is continually being ignored, then she shifts immediately to the concerned mother when Shelby’s (Erinn Exline Casazza) blood sugar suddenly drops. But M’Lynn’s biggest scene is the last scene of the play, when her daughter has died and she is torn up by rage, confusion, and sadness. These are complicated emotions to play convincingly, but Ulrich hit it out of the park. Her performance took me there, to that grief, that outrage, and that guilt over both failing to protect her daughter and outliving her child.

But again, the show is fundamentally a comedy, and the MT Pockets’ production brought together some amazingly funny actors. Generally speaking, Truvy (Gretchen Ross) and Annelle (Kate Vacca) were complimentary, while Clairee (Kaici Lore) and Ouiser (Christine Adducchio) complimented one another. The first relationship developed in the play is between Truvy and Annelle, and Ross’ gregarious, convivial, and sassy performance was an excellent counterpoint to Vacca’s shy, skittish, almost mousy uncertainty. While Ross has the lion’s share of the funny lines in the early portion, Vacca’s sincerity and desire to please fit her immediately into the tightly knit group of women. Clairee and Ouiser both use cynicism to create a tough outer shell, which does little to hide their deep devotion to their friends. Lore’s straight and understated delivery made Clairee’s sarcasm devastating. And Adducchio’s flustered curmudgeon was a frequent target for the wit of her companions, but she got her own back when, for instance, she sicced her dog on Shelby’s bothersome father. One of the funniest moments in the play was between Lore and Adducchio, used to lighten the mood after M’Lynn’s brutally heavy outburst in the last scene. After Ulrich declared that she just wanted to hit someone until they hurt as much as she did, Lore grabbed Adducchio and held her for Ulrich to punch, yelling that this was her chance, they could sell t shirts, and that the whole town would love the opportunity to hit Ouiser.

My one small critique of the performance is that the scene changes were long, which was necessary because—unlike many shows where the actors signal the shift of time by changing minor portions of outfits—each scene involved a full costume change for each actor, so that they never appeared on stage in the same costume twice.

07 May 2017

Kimberly Akimbo, by David Lindsay-Abaire

A well-written comedy well performed makes for a delightful evening. And MT Pockets’ production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo was a delightful evening. Under Christian Cox’s direction, the cast put on a very strong performance, working cohesively together to create a fantastic production of a very funny play.

I’ve seen one of Lindsay-Abaire’s other plays—Rabbit Hole—and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. Kimberly Akimbo follows Kim Lavaco, who has a disease which makes her age four and a half times the normal rate. The average life expectancy for someone with this disease is 16 years old. And Kim has just turned 16. And while this doesn’t sound like a comic set up, when you throw the rest of Kim’s dysfunctional family into the mix, it really gets farcical. Her dad, Buddy, is a (semi-)recovering alcoholic; her mom, Pattie, is heavily pregnant and seems to have given herself hypochondria as a way to cope with Kim’s likely early death; Aunt Debra is a grafter, drifter, and criminal who steals a mailbox as part of a scheme to wash checks and get Kim and her friend Jeff to cash them posing as a boy and his grandma; and finally Jeff, who is new to Kim’s life and the ultra-nerd tries to navigate the waters of Kim and her odd, secretive family. While none of these elements may in themselves be funny, when it’s put all together Lindsay-Abaire has struck a great balance between the farcical and the absurd, with just the right number of serious moments blended in.

Of course, a comedy with this many moving parts presents a major challenge in performance because every character is funny, so it’s imperative to have a strong cast to support all of those funny roles. And Cox cast a fantastic group for this show. Charlotte Haas played Kim with the biting wit and sarcasm of a surly teenager; Andrew T. Blood played Buddy, alternating between bursts of anger and a sense of helplessness; Tawnya Drake’s very New Jersey Pattie was fantastic as she complained, berated her family, and recorded audio tapes for her unborn child documenting her life and views; Lauren Swann gave a gruff and comically intrusive Aunt Debra; and Adam Messenger played a Steve Urkel kind of Jeff, relentlessly cheerful, continually shocked, and geekily enthusiastic about D&D and anagrams.

While all the actors were excellent, probably the standout performances came from Haas and Drake. While their performance styles were very different, they each brought their characters to live extremely well. Haas was generally understated, relying on sarcasm and a teenage surliness which is key to the role—a role which derives much of its punch in the contrast of the teenage girl against the older woman’s body, reminding us to be cautious about judging from appearances. Haas did a fantastic job playing the teen, even her body language conveyed teenage boredom, angst, and disillusion. For instance, when Kim confronts her parents about her unborn sister’s genetic code, Haas leaned against the wall with her arms folded to convey a teenage isolation and weaponized disinterest. On the other hand, Drake went big with her performance of Pattie—and big comic performances is where Drake really shines. Her Pattie was loud, was a talker, and shifted rapidly between anger at her unreliable, alcoholic husband, loving coos into the tape recorded for her future child, and extensive complaining about her multitude of (partially imaginary) illnesses.

The program still includes a note that the company is adjusting to the new LED lights—and the lighting was a point of critique in my last MT Pockets review. While there is still some room for improvement, the lighting this time was substantially better. The LEDs seem most adept at creating atmospheric lighting (that is, lighting the stage as a whole rather than highlighting bits and pieces like a spot light, or in changing dynamically) which is really what a play like Kimberly Akimbo seems to call for. It is a show that benefits from unobtrusive lighting, particularly when the acting and the storyline mesh as well as this production.