For Stageworks’ midsummer show, artistic director Karla Hartley wanted a comedy. The one she decided on is a real howler.
A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia, the story of a young city couple whose marriage is threatened by the sudden appearance of a frolicsome stray dog, premiered Off-Broadway in 1995. A pre-Sex and the City Sarah Jessica Parker was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for her portrayal of Sylvia, the canine in question.
Yes, the star of Sylvia is a human being, playing a dog.
This is Stageworks’ third production of Sylvia – it was onstage in 2012 and 2014, and set attendance records each time.
Returning for the 2021 version, which opens Friday, is Tampa actress Kari Goetz. She played the people-pleasing pup in both previous Stageworks productions.
“Physical comedy is just my favorite thing in the whole world,” Goetz says. “Throwing on those knee pads is permission for me to get away with all sorts of crazy stuff.”
Director Hartley and the four-member cast spent their penultimate week of rehearsals working in Stageworks’ expansive lobby; another company, Outcast Theatre, had been loaned the auditorium for its show Dionysus on the Down Low.
After the weekend, the Sylvia team moved back into the theater to put the shaggy dog story on its feet.
The irony is not lost on Hartley, who notes that Stageworks will soon celebrate its 10th year in the same building in Tampa’s Channelside District.
“Look at a company that was 30 years wandering in the desert, rehearsing wherever they could find a place to rehearse, and performing in various spaces around the city,” she says. “Which were great, and a lot of people were very generous in terms of space availability. But to have your own home, it’s astounding.”
For Hartley, re-mounting Sylvia as Stageworks peeks out from behind the pandemic was something of a no-brainer.
“I think everybody’s trying to find those things they think will sell well, especially coming out of what we’ve been doing,” she explains. “But also, it’s really great fun, and I feel like people need to have great fun. So the impetus was find a play that people could just laugh their heads off at. And this is it.”
There are, to be sure, several poignant moments as New Yorkers Greg and Kate grapple with a lengthy marriage which may or may not be coming apart.
The sudden appearance of a frisky dog – brought home by Greg to a generally unwelcoming Kate – may or may not make things worse.
Like Goetz, actor Harold Oehler (Greg) is returning for the third go-round. “You remember some of the lines, but you still have to re-learn the script,” he says, adding that Goetz’ inspired dog-isms still make him laugh.
“More importantly, we have two new cast members, and it’s like a completely different show, even though the words are the same. What they bring to the table, people are going to say ‘I’ve never seen this show before.’”
Goetz agrees. “The dynamic this time around is very different. Jonell Meyer as Kate has added more of a comedic take to my nemesis. And it’s allowed me to be a little bit more of a manipulative doggie! I have a worthy adversary that I can really mess with on different levels.”
Meyer, who was onstage pre-pandemic in Meteor Shower (with Jobsite) and Morningside (Stageworks), has performed with both of St. Petersburg’s professional theater companies, freeFall and American Stage.
She echoes director Harley’s sentiments. “You want to see this show because it’s been a tough year and a half, and it’s a good reason to laugh.”
Rounding out the cast is another newcomer (to this show), Ryan Bernier, who got his start in a Stageworks production of A Few Good Men in 2014. In Sylvia, he plays three characters, each slightly more eccentric than the last.
None of Gurney’s other characters are quite as eccentric as the anthropomorphic pooch herself.
“I love characters that don’t have filters,” enthuses Goetz. “I’ve had the good pleasure of playing a couple of characters that just don’t have a filter.
“And that is certainly the most rewarding thing about playing Sylvia. You get to do whatever you want. You’re a dog.”
Sylvia is presented live onstage (preview performance is Thursday, July 29), and a digital streaming version is being made available. Tickets are here.