Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tails of Canine Devotion: Part I

"If you get to thinkin' you're a person of some influence, try orderin' somebody else's dog around." - Cowboy Wisdom

For the last 12,000 years of human history, man has depended on the canine as hunter, herder, and companion. Their significance stretches back to claims of sled dogs being used to transport the first humans across the Bering Strait, to the use of Irish Wolfhounds by the Celts in the sacking of Delphi in 600 B.C.

Shakespeare’s lone starring quadruped through his entire canon is a dog, named Crab, from Two Gentlemen of Verona. Why the non-sensible name? Could it be that the true affection expressed in the relationship between man and dog can’t be fully addressed with language? To paraphrase the Bard: A dog by any other name…will love you just the same.

Argus, from The Odyssey by Homer, was Odysseus’ loyal old dog and the only one, of man or beast, who recognized his long-lost owner when Odysseus returned from his wayward journey in a beggar’s disguise.

The relationship between dog and man has had proven significance within the academic and clinical realm: Sigmund Freud kept his pet chow chow, Jofi, with him during psychotherapy sessions, believing that the animal comforted his patients. His observations of these interactions served as the basis for his writings on pet-assisted therapy.

With the progress of audio technology in the early 20th century, the dog again took center-stage in the shape of a Jack Russell Terrier named Nipper whose presence on the “His Master’s Voice” advertising campaign turned the tiny dog into an icon. Even in the new century, it is an image that has been retained by brands such as HMV and JVC. What better way to assume the ability to perfectly replicate sound then to present a dog taking its master’s commands from a gramophone?

Stay tuned for more tales of Canine Devotion

Monday, March 29, 2010

Actress Is in the Doghouse in "Sylvia"

reprinted from U.S. 1 News

I’m still wearing my collar. It helps me keep in character as it makes a little jingling sound. And it’s good for scratching and such,” says Rachel Dratch in a phone interview during a rehearsal break for the comedy “Sylvia” by A.R. Gurney, which goes into previews on Tuesday, March 30 and opens Friday, April 2, at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. Not the usual opening remarks, but then Dratch is playing not-the-usual title character, who just happens to be a dog. In the play, a man brings Sylvia home, much to the dismay of his wife. “I become a bone of contention between them. No pun intended,” says Dratch.

This role can be enriched by what actors call “sense memory.” When Dratch was a little girl a stray dog, a collie-huskie mix, ran up to her in the family’s front yard. Indulgently, her parents let her keep her and she named her Muffin. In “Sylvia” she plays another mixed breed mutt. We’re told it is a labradoodle — a cross between a Labrador and a poodle. Dratch assures me that dog lovers, pure bred or non, will love this play.

Most of us are more familiar with Dratch as other characters she played for seven years on “Saturday Night Live.” Remembering her Debbie Downer expressions, one can certainly imagine that her Sylvia must have a very expressive face. “I’ve never played a dog before except for Snoopy in a high school production of ‘You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.’ But I’ve certainly played a lot of creatures and critters over the years.” And she’s not unfamiliar with characters who relate to pets as we remember her as Phoebe, a woman whose giant pets (a parrot and a cat) ruin her dates.

Some of her other memorable SNL characters include Martha Stewart, a Junior High boy named Sheldon, a space lesbian, Harry Potter, Hillary Clinton, and Elizabeth Taylor. She and Jimmy Fallon played Boston teenagers. And with Will Ferrell, the two of them were professors called “The Luvers” whose most memorable scene had them in a hot tub. “I played lots of dudes [male characters]. It’s bizarre. Although one of them I wrote for myself because I thought it would be funny — this 80-year-old sleazy Hollywood producer Abe Scheinwald.”

She says that SLN cast members usually write much of their own material, and she enjoys writing even though, with the performance deadlines, “It was trial by fire.” She would like to do more writing but misses the pressure she thinks she needs to produce it. Her brother, Daniel, is a writer in Los Angeles who has written for television and received awards for work on “Monk” and “The Chris Rock Show.”

Dratch grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, where her mother (now retired) directed a transportation agency for the state and her dad is a radiologist. She remembers watching SNL when she was only in the third grade. “I was fascinated by SNL but never thought, ‘Oh, I’ll be on that some day.’” She was in school plays every year and went to summer theater camp. “But it was always just something fun, not like pursuing it as a career. After all, the odds of making it are pretty daunting.”

At Dartmouth College, she earned a degree in drama and psychology. “I did think about becoming a therapist and still have on occasion when I’m not getting jobs or am sick of the business. But then I realize I’ve put so much time in as an actor, and it’s so much fun. I think I’m in it for life.”

She was part of an improv group in college who decided to take a trip to “Improv Central,” a.k.a. Chicago, to visit the well-known comedy venue Second City. “I didn’t want to not try just because I was scared of it. So, in Chicago, slowing but surely — certainly not instant success — I got into the Second City Touring Company, which led to moving up to their main stage. Then, you’re really in it.” She wrote sketches and appeared in them for four years. For two of the sketches, she won the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Actress in a Revue. At Second City, she and Tina Fey developed and appeared in a two-person show that eventually made it to New York City at the Upright Citizen Brigade Theater. My friend Jeff Knapp (theatre director and sound designer) saw this and remembers it as one of the funniest evenings ever, especially their “Wuthering Heights” spoof.

Dratch joined Saturday Night Live in 1999. In addition to sketch work, she has appeared in other television programs and made film appearances. “A lot of them are on late night cable. Adam Sandler put me in a bunch of his movies. Sometimes I get recognized from those. I haven’t done as many movies as I’d like to.”

Also in New York she has appeared as part of a rotating cast at the Triad Theatre on the upper west side on Monday nights in “Celebrity Autobiography.” “We read from various celebrity autobiographies. The people who wrote them didn’t mean them to be funny, but now — time has passed.” She has “done” Joan Lunden and Vanna White, but says, “My favorite has interchanging bits from autobiographies by Burt Reynolds, Loni Anderson, and Burt Reynolds’ secretary. I read the secretary.”

She has spent quite some time involved with the on-again, off-again new musical “Minsky’s” with music by Charles Strouse (“Bye Bye Birdie,” “Annie”) lyrics by Susan Birkenhead (“Jelly’s Last Jam”), and book by Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”). When it opened in the spring of last year at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, New York Times theater Critic Charles Isherwood flew to LA and favorably noticed Dratch. He wrote, “Ms. Dratch and Mr. [John] Cariani as the matched misfits almost steal the show with a sour-grapes duet, ‘I Want a Life,’ a plaintive song about the allure of the untheatrical life. ‘I want a life where pies are dessert,’ Mr. Cariani sings in a nasal drone matched by Ms. Dratch’s. ‘Where flowers are flowers and none of them squirt.’”

She says she was thrilled to meet and work with Strouse and told him that “Annie” was the first professional musical that she saw. “I used to dance around the living room to the record from ‘Annie.’” She never dreamed that she’d grow up to be in one of his shows. For now, “Minsky’s” keeps “going into limbo. Just last week I heard there had been another rewrite. I keep waiting by the window — another year — still a possibility.” Let’s hope.

Meanwhile, mark your calendar for Dratch’s special appearance on Saturday Night Live on May 8, when a group of alumnae gather to support Betty White as the evening’s host. But first, there’s “Sylvia.” Woof. Woof.

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.