Sylvia and Ol’ Man River

The play Sylvia at the Mainline and an upcoming Tribute to Paul Robeson

By Byron Toben

Sylvia — A tale of dogs and men

A.R. Gurney ranks in the top five of living American playwrights. He is prolific, having written 43! Most are rarely performed in Montreal. Dramatis Personae, the Westmount amateur theatre, presented an admirable version of his most famous, The Dining Room in 2012.

I recall seeing Bill Rowat in his Sylvia some years before that, out at the Piggery in the Eastern Townships, enjoying it and hoping to see it again sometime. That sometime came in the past week when Brave New Productions mounted a superb production in an all too short run.

Who is this Sylvia? Not the woman in Shakespeare’s sonnet nor the goat in Albee’s play. She is a real bitch… lovable, but of canine descent, a lab-poodle mix. Played by Stephanie McKenna (Beethoven in BNP’s 33 Variations a year ago), she masters all the doggie movements and proclivities. Her movement training as Dance Gecko in Robin Henderson’s Dance Animal has borne fruit, not to mention a promotion from reptile to mammal.

… Brave New Productions mounted a superb production in an all too short run.

sylvia play scene

Donald Rees as Phyllis

The plot centres around a middle aged couple, Greg (Joe Dineen, who once studied under the legendary Uta Hagen) and Kate (Carolyn Fe, returning to the stage after 7 years of blues singing). Kids grown up, they have given up their suburban spread to move to a small apartment in Manhattan. Kate is busy with her Shakespearean studies and teaching as Greg enters a midlife crisis, gradually ignoring his job in sales and strolling in Central Park. There he encounters the stray dog, Sylvia, and takes her home, to Kate’s dismay.

Sylvia becomes the other woman, threatening the marriage. The three talk in English to each other, a convention that works seamlessly. Her barks are Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Rather than Little Orphan Annie’s dog Sandy’s conventional Arf!

BNP head Donald Rees has a ball playing three minor roles: Tom, a man who owns Bowser, a dog bearing a proper canine name; Phyllis, an old girl friend of Kate’s, and Leslie, a psychiatrist of indeterminate gender.

Artistic Director Emma McQueen keeps the whole thing moving along, enlivened by original music of Ian Baird and wall projections of the Gotham skyline.

Sylvia ended at the Mainline theatre on May 14.

Check out for future events, including two radio plays in the late summer.

Images: courtesy of Brave New Productions

Ol’ Man River — A Tribute to Paul Robeson

Ol’ Man River Paul Robeson tribute poster westmountmag.caPaul Robeson was the true Renaissance Man of the 20th Century. The son of an ex-slave, he became:
• All American football player
• Lawyer
• Theatre star
• Movie star
• Singing star
• Social Activist

I organized two tributes to him, in 2009 and again in 2012, at the Atwater Library. Both were written up by Bill Brownstein of the Montreal Gazette, and both featured bass-baritone singer Tom Fox, a Robeson expert, accompanied by popular local musician Andrew Cowan.

Tom is now presenting his new show, titled Ol’ Man River for the benefit of the Parkinson’s Society. It features the songs that Robeson sung on his appearances in Montreal. French personality Raymond Cloutier will introduce the show.

Ol’ Man River – A Tribute to Paul Robeson
Tuesday, May 17 at 7:30 pm
Théâtre Outremount
1248 Bernard W, Montreal
Tickets at 514 495-9944 or

Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club

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