KPBS AIRDATE: MARCH 11, 1998
How do you capture in one brief discussion two theatrical presentations as diverse as a political dance-opera and a canine comedy? Well, you could say that the country is going to the dogs. “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere” examines the state of the union; “Sylvia” explores the state of a midlife marriage.
In A.R. Gurney’s “Sylvia,” the title character is no less than an intrusive bitch, with the potential of ruining a marriage. She is, of course, a true cur, a pup found at the park who becomes not only a man’s best friend, but his amorous obsession and a whelp of a wedge in his marriage. Gurney gives Sylvia literate lines and an endearing personality; her human counterparts fare less well. The financial whiz gets no satisfaction at work. His wife, who went back to school to fill an empty nest, teaches Shakespeare in an inner city junior high, so she gets to quote the Bard as a button for several scenes. Although this is one of Gurney’s most popular plays, it’s a cute idea that isn’t worth a two-hour evening, no matter how much you love dogs (and I do).
You could see the play as supremely sexist; Sylvia is, after all, the male fantasy of the perfect mate: simple and simply adoring. Grateful for any attention, willing to lie quietly at your feet, and ready to roll on the floor at a moment’s notice. Jealousy abounds — between man and dog, husband and wife. The triangle goes off in tangents, with the addition of three characters — one male, one female, one sexually ambiguous — who put their two cents in about the Pop-and-puppy relationship. Having the dog played as a pert young woman has always given actresses something tasty to sink their teeth into.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, Tracey MacNeil does a good job, though she has too small a repertoire of scene-stealing dog-like behaviors. But she’s lovable and charming, and she makes a cuddly centerpiece of the French-singing, Tennessee Williams-quoting ingénue who can swear like a stevedore. As her owners, Vinny Ferelli and Carmen Beaubeaux never really connect, though both do a serviceable job with cardboard characters. John Steed gets all the fun, playing the macho dog-man, the Vassar snob and the androgynous shrink, but he only shines as the tough ‘90s guy, a gum-chewing, crotch-grabbing, park philosopher of men and dogs. This isn’t North Coast Rep’s finest hour, or Marty Burnett’s best set, though it has the distinction of being Olive Blakistone’s final production before retiring as artistic director. As it did a few years back at the Globe, “Sylvia” is being eaten up by audiences. But for me, it goes down about as well as a Milk Bone, and leaves me growling for more.
Same could be said for Eveoke Dance theatre’s latest and most ambitious project, “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere.” Choreographer Gina Angelique, who believes that “art is a form of social activism,” had no less an objective than to “get people… to ask what they can do to change the world.” I’ll buy that. But I couldn’t totally invest in this hip-hop folk-dance opera.
Act 1 is set to the stories of Utah Phillips, backed by the disappointingly droning music of Ani DiFranco. There were enormous technical problems at St. Cecilia’s on opening night. You couldn’t understand one word Phillips was saying in the first three of his ten folksy tales of war, anarchy, patriotism and compassion. This was critical because Angelique and her troupe were often merely acting out the words, which smacked more of illustration than inspiration. The choreography was repetitively confined to arm-flinging, head-snapping, somersaulting, knee-slapping moves.
In the second act, backed by the songs of Phil Ochs, Leo Kottke and Duke Ellington, Angelique showed much more of her versatility, inventiveness and wit. But the best part of the evening was the setting, with its undulating water image surrounding the audience, bringing to life Angelique’s notion of the past as a river flowing through us.
Frustrations notwithstanding, in an era of public lassitude and complacency, it’s refreshing to see young artists using their bodies for a call to arms.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.