TBT goes to the dogs with new show

The special relationship between a man and his dog becomes the stuff of comedy in Thunder Bay Theatre’s newest production, “Sylvia,” by A.R. Gurney. Opening Thursday for a two-week run, the show should appeal to animal lovers in particular, even as it also provides relationship insights on love and marriage.

Husband and wife Greg and Kate are empty-nesters in New York City, when on a walk in the park, Greg gets adopted by Sylvia, a bouncy, frisky lab-poodle mix. The pooch offers Greg an escape from the frustrations of his job and the unknowns of middle age. For Kate, however, Sylvia becomes a rival for her husband’s affection.

Where the plot takes a turn for the unusual is that the dog is played by a human actress, which in the TBT’s case is core company member Puja Tolton. She wears regular clothing in place of a dog costume and speaks in human terms, all the while displaying a variety of dog mannerisms.

“This role is so much fun,” said Tolton. “It’s super physical so I feel like I’m getting a real workout. Sylvia is really energetic. I feel like she’s a mix between a petulant teen, a toddler and a dog.”

In preparation for playing the part of a dog, Tolton made sure to spend time around plenty of real dogs.

“I love animals in general and have had a lot of dogs,” she said. “I did a lot of research, and since I knew I was doing this role, I hung out with relatives’ dogs over Christmas.”

Gurney, the playwright, happens to be a favorite of TBT Artistic Director Kevin Reams. A self-confessed dog lover and a huge fan of comedy, Reams said he has wanted to do the play for quite some time.

“This is one of my favorites,” he said, noting that he first saw the production several years ago in Orlando, Fla.

The final member of TBT’s spring company, Curtis Brown, arrived in Alpena in time to play the husband, Greg. Originally from Atlanta, Ga., he holds a BA in Theatre from Shorter College. He has worked professionally on stage and off at Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre in North Carolina for three seasons and nine years with the Main Street Players in Georgia. He also has worked on two national tours with Springer Opera House and just finished a two-year stint working at Walt Disney World.

Joining Brown on stage as his wife, Kate, is fellow core company actress Nickie Hilton.

The fourth and final member of the cast is company intern Nick Hartman, who plays three different characters just as the script is written. He’s a chatty guy at the park, a society dame and a therapist who’s supposed to androgynous.

“Gurney’s style is realism, but he loves to add a very theatrical element to things and give acting challenges to a few of the characters,” said Reams.

Brown joined the company as a costumer as well as an actor. He said he’s been impressed with the theatre’s wardrobe and has been spending some time going through it and organizing accessories. For “Sylvia,” the challenge was to have Tolton wear regular clothing but add elements that make her more dog-like in appearance.

Design of the set fell to TBT Technical Director Joseph Simpson, who has worked as a technical director, lighting designer, master electrician, sound designer and rigging lead for the last six years in professional theatres around the country. Reams praised Simpson’s work on the set, which involves an apartment on platforms and a small revolving section that at varying times depicts a park bench, an airport scene and the therapist’s office.

“It’s the first time we’ve had a technical director who’s not an actor, so he’s a lot more experienced in all aspects of technical theatre,” Reams said.

“Sylvia” is scheduled to run this Thursday through Sunday and March 6-9. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Call the box office at 354-2267 for reservations.