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Sylvia
 
20/08/2003
The Flying Inkpot
GOING TO THE DOGS
By Musa Fazal

Greg and Kate are your typical couple reacting to their silver jubilee years in wildly divergent ways. With their kids off to university, Kate is excited at the prospect that her career is finally about to take off. Greg, however, is having a "male menopausal moment". Along comes Sylvia, a vivacious mutt Greg finds in a park (or does she find him, wonders the press release) on an afternoon when he should have been at work. Greg's life takes on new meaning. Kate is sore with jealousy. Best of all, we know everything Sylvia is thinking, because she talks (she swears, pees and sniffs other people's behinds as well).

It isn't surprising what a big hit Sylvia has been with American audiences. Gurney's writing is nothing if not clever. How many playwrights can turn something as humble as the shoe that Sylvia lays at Kate's feet, into what Greg calls "a peace offering" and Kate calls "a deliberate act of aggression"? Or have a character spout Shakespeare while cleaning up a dog's remains and still make wonderful sense? (Kate quotes Hamlet's "I must be cruel only to be kind/Thus bad begins and worse remains behind" while mopping up Sylvia's pee…) Humour abounds. One of the best lines is when Kate, accused of being prejudiced against dogs, protests that she watches Snoopy.

The casting added spice to the play. With John Faulkner playing Greg and the very pretty Chae Lian playing Sylvia, it was hard to avoid seeing this as a classic case of the Caucasian male and his young Asian infatuation. Sean Yeo, who plays three roles in the play, was a crowd-pleaser particularly in his drag role as Phyllis, where he indulged the audience with loud histrionics and an even louder lime green outfit that came with matching mules. Chae Lian was adorable with her puppy-dog quips of "I love you!" that randomly peppered the play, though the role and the lines left room for her to be even more charming. Bridget Therese did a competent job of a character that's hard to love.

Faulkner's flawless acting however took the play to another level. His character moved with effortless grace from the tired executive in shirt and tie questioning why his children should even bother with a university education, to the youthful, exuberant boy teaching his dog silly tricks with a red rubber ball. Faulkner's Greg reminds us what it is like when something seizes us by the leash, our nights grow clearer, the haze parts and the stars connect. It's a tragedy to watch this nervous excitement wane as the play progresses, and to see the play end with Faulkner's Greg, dressed much as he was at the beginning of the play except for the tie (Kate too has let down her hair), looking at a picture of the bedraggled epiphany, Sylvia, a month before her death.

The staging for this play is straightforward, but sensible. The couch rightfully occupies centre stage, and is used throughout the play as a battlefield between Kate, Sylvia and Greg, i.e., Kate wants Sylvia off the couch, Sylvia wants to be on the couch, and Greg indulges her. Director Richard Gardner also does an admirable job of localising the play. Greg and Kate spend their anniversary at Batu Feringghi (with Sylvia boisterously tagging along of course), and when Sylvia is to be given away to save Greg and Kate's marriage, it is to a family in that ulu-est of places, Seletar, where Sylvia laments she will never meet anyone again. Even androgynous Indian mystic Sham is a colourfully Asian version of the therapist 'Leslie' in Gurney's script.

There were occasions however, when the attempt at localisation did not sit well. Sean Yeo looked uncomfortable in his attempt at creating a Beng version of the gruff, but surprisingly well-read character Tom. Chae Lian's attempts to slip into Singlish at several points in the play seemed contrived. At best she appeared like an actress who had momentarily slipped out of character.

Overall this play gets the thumbs up for good, flea-infested fun that should please the whole family. You might even learn a thing or two, like the "biophilia hypothesis" that purports to explain man's natural affection for nature in terms of a hereditary gene, and claims people who hate animals (the lousy stiffs) have somehow lost this gene. A fascinating subject for an after-play supper conversation. Just remember to carefully enunciate the word biophile, lest you be accused of being a pervert.