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‘Sylvia’: Puppy love in Pagosa Springs

The Thingamajig Theatre Company at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts kicked off its 2011 summer season last weekend with “Sylvia,” a hilarious satire about a man’s canine-inspired mid-life crisis.

The production is as fine as any the town has seen, and audiences are sure to laugh along with the fabulous talent of the performers and the quick wit of A.R. Gurney, the playwright.

The show runs Thursday through Saturday with performances at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m through July 17.

The play begins as Greg, a middle-aged man living in New York’s Upper West Side discovers a stray dog in the park and becomes immediately infatuated. Sylvia (the namesake of the dog as well as the play) reciprocates Greg’s love with her own doggie devotion. Things look to be going wonderfully for the new couple until Greg’s wife, Kate, unexpectedly discovers Sylvia sprung on her. Kate, who is very much past the dog phase of her life, is disturbed by Greg’s sudden puppy love … and by the fact that his attention, once so focused on his career, has shifted entirely to this new intruder.

Greg, played by the versatile Tim Moore, embarks on a crisis of the spirit as he progresses through the play. Although Sylvia is prominent in his life, Greg is searching for his own identity, and Moore embodies that transition perfectly as the audience watches on. It’s not always clean and sane, but it’s often hilarious and always honest.

One of the unique things about “Sylvia” is the fact that Sylvia herself is played by an actress. There are no actual animals used in the production (unless, of course, you count the actors). Sylvia is played by the wonderfully talented Laura Moore, who brings a dog’s enthusiasm, spontaneity and vibrancy to life as she pounces, plays and piddles (but only until she’s housebroken) around the stage.

As Greg and Kate wrestle with their new addition, they each struggle to find a place for Sylvia in their lives. Greg, disillusioned with his career, finds new life in Sylvia as his devotion to her continues to grow. Kate, on the other hand, finds Sylvia an unwanted distraction – and she has every right to. Having just completed her master’s degree, Kate is embarking on the ambitious task of attempting to bring Shakespeare to the inner-city junior high schools. She is a driven, career oriented woman recently freed from the responsibilities of child rearing. Her passion for teaching doesn’t allow for the attention that a new pet requires.

As I watched the show, it occurred to me just how difficult the character of Kate really is — by all rights, the audience will fall in love with Greg and Sylvia, and Kate is the natural enemy to their relationship. However, Kate is a deeply complex character, and her actions are driven by her newfound liberation and passion being threatened by Greg’s insecurities and Sylvia’s needs. Pagosa native Lizz Baldwin portrays these actions with a sadness that is endearing.

Greg and Kate’s dilemma is propelled by the advice of their friends, Tom, Phyllis and Leslie, who each offer insight into what should be done with this “Sylvia situation”. Tom, a fellow dog owner and confident to Greg, offers his own Alpha Male advice, although he too struggles with his own canine crisis. Phyllis, a hoity-toity Upper East Side debutante advises Kate to ditch the pooch and spend her life in the parade of parties that make up the UES, while pop-psychologist Leslie thinks that Greg is attempting to fill a woman-shaped hole in his life with his dog. These characters are insane in their own right, each one bringing a level of absurdity and humor to the show as it speeds along.

Oh yeah, and they’re all played by the same person.

Robin Hebert, a Denver actor and guest artist at the PSCA this summer, frantically changes from character to character, sometimes donning a Boston Red Sox cap as Tom while in the park with Greg (a brave decision for anyone in New York), sometimes donning makeup and a wig as he preaches as Phyllis, and other times donning an awkward physical nature that can only be a pop-psychologist who is wrestling with her own problems.

Sylvia lives up to the high standards put forward by the PSCA’s previous shows. When guests arrive, the first thing they’ll notice is that the center is overwhelmingly unique and classy. There is wonderful music being provided by local musicians and the lobby’s expansive atmosphere provides a perfect gallery for artwork from artists, both local and abroad. There is a well-stocked bar serving beer from the local brewing company, Pagosa Brewing, and of course, the production is first-rate. I went on the opening night, which has traditionally been a champagne and hors d’oeuvres celebration. The ticket prices are usually a bit higher, but the free glass of champagne and the chance to have a talk-back with the actors of the show really make the night unique.

All in all, the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts and the Thingamajig Theatre Company have proven once again that professional theater and an artistic environment can and do exist in Pagosa.

“Sylvia” runs Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. now through July 17. Ticket prices are $15, and tickets can be purchased at the PSCA, located at 2313 Eagle Drive, by calling 731-SHOW, or online at www.pagosacenter.org.

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