Thursday, March 18, 2010

In Rehearsal with "Sylvia"

posted by Joe Marchese

The sign on the door off the theatre lobby reads “SYLVIA: Rehearsal in Progress – Quiet Please.” But inside, things are anything but quiet. At any given moment, there’s yapping, barking, singing – and much laughter. How could there not be? Veteran comedienne and actress Rachel Dratch (Saturday Night Live, Minsky’s) leads our stellar cast, channeling her inner canine as Sylvia. She’s joined by multiple Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines (Contact, Gypsy) and his real-life wife, the deliciously dry Kathleen McNenny (George Street’s Human Events, Sight Unseen) as Greg and Kate, the married New York couple “adopted” by Sylvia. Versatile comic pro Stephen DeRosa (Into the Woods, The Man Who Came to Dinner) rounds out the four-person company, playing a variety of roles. With this cast, hilarity is expected. But by the conclusion of Sylvia, audiences won’t only have laughed non-stop, but they might even have learned a little about themselves, too.

In A.R. Gurney’s play, Greg and Kate’s life is changed in ways they never anticipated when Greg finds (or is found by?) the stray dog named Sylvia at a New York City park. Since its 1995 New York debut, theatergoers worldwide have embraced Gurney’s play, identifying with his semi-autobiographical work. But the story of Sylvia also rings true for the dog-friendly ensemble under the direction of Artistic Director, David Saint. Key to any rehearsal process is exploration of a play’s themes and text, and Sylvia’s is no exception. Many discussions of our four-legged friends occur daily, and we even had a guest appearance one afternoon by Boyd and Kathleen’s dog, the adorable Cinders. Perhaps to inspire Sylvia in a pivotal scene, Cinders was generous enough to show off some of her tricks!

Dratch has drawn particular inspiration from her beloved friend Muffin. Rachel told the GSP Blog that she met Muffin at age twelve when the stray dog ran onto her front lawn and approached her, much in the way Greg claims Sylvia found him in Gurney’s play! Rachel immediately connected with Muffin, a collie/husky. For around three days, Muffin followed her around. In those pre-Internet days, the Dratch family put up signs looking for her owner, and when nobody appeared, they subsequently brought her to the pound. Pound policy was that if Muffin’s owners hadn’t emerged within ten days, the Dratches could adopt her. Rachel noted that her father wasn’t a “dog person,” so prospects didn’t look likely. But Rachel visited Muffin over the ten-day period, and at its conclusion, her dad had been convinced. The answer to “Can we keep her?” was a resounding “Yes!” and Muffin became a permanent “member of the family,” loved by all…including her dad.

Rachel’s performance captures the sometimes-frenetic animal physicality of Sylvia whether she is being called upon to roll over, catch, or even get caught in a leash. Rachel is careful to avoid, in her own words, becoming too “person-y” in her portrayal. As a result, she has frequently recalled Muffin’s mannerisms and behaviors in creating Sylvia for George Street audiences. Like Sylvia, described in the play as having a certain “hybrid vigor,” Rachel says that Muffin was a bit more rugged than her name would indicate. But the name stuck anyway! Each rehearsal is definitely a workout for the tireless Ms. Dratch.

Rachel revealed in rehearsal, though, that Sylvia isn’t exactly her first canine role – she once starred as Snoopy in a theatre camp production of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown! (Yes, Rachel sings, too, and recently starred at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre in the Broadway-bound production of Minsky’s!)

Playwright Thornton Wilder is believed to have said, “The best thing about animals is that they don’t talk much.” Well, with all due respect to the late and estimable Mr. Wilder, he was wrong! We hope you come see Sylvia – all-talking, all-dog, all played marvelously by Rachel Dratch, Boyd Gaines, Kathleen McNenny and Stephen DeRosa. We begin previews in less than two weeks, on Tuesday, March 30. See you at the theatre!

JOE MARCHESE is the Assistant Director of Sylvia.

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