It’s a dog-eat-dog summer at Cockpit in Court this year, with a Disaster! downstairs on the main stage and Sylvia upstairs in the cabaret space. A.R. Gurney’s strange comedy about a dog originally set in the 80’s is meandering into modernity this 2019 summer season under the direction of Robert W. Oppel. It’s definitely an intriguing show and the titular character is by far best in show!
The show is a bit of a struggle on multiple levels; Director Robert W. Oppel doesn’t push the pacing and the push from the 80’s to the 20-teens feels slightly out of sorts with itself (primarily with the beautiful backdrop that shows Greg sitting with Kate at the airport gate waiting for her plane) and there are a lot of instances where two of the actors in this four-person show do not appear to be encouraged to project and because of the cabaret theatre space’s in-the-round staging, this creates volume issues throughout the performance. Tammy Oppel as Kate struggles with this the most and a great many of her Shakespearean zingers are lost to the audience because they can’t be heard. Oppel’s portrayal of Kate is lacking drive, particularly when it comes to the showdowns with Sylvia and overall feels like it lacks direction, giving the emotions that A.R. Gurney has penned into her text no place to go. Troy Haines-Hopper as Greg also feels out of sync with the show, often delivering his text with rote, monotone affectations. It’s difficult to tell if this is meant to be some deep-seeded directorial choice in an obscure attempt to show how jaded the Greg character really is with life or if this is just an overall misguided character.
If you can overlook these elements, and understandably that’s a big ask of any audience when the show is meant to be a zippy-paced comedy starring only four people, there are two extraordinary performances, glorious scenery, and a quaint, sweet tale buried inside waiting to be discovered. Costume Designer Eva Grove deserves a nod of praise for the fabulous fabrications she sets forth when it comes to Sylvia. The way she hints at the notion of the human actor looking like a dog (both in her “direct from the streets” and “fresh from the groomer” couture appearances) add to the humor of the show. Grove gives everyone a modern appeal, which matches the director’s shift into the 21st century, though whether or not this shift best serves the text remains to be seen.
Scenic and Lighting Designer G. Maurice “Moe” Conn III has bathed the in-the-round scene in blue tones that create a smart playing space for the New York City apartment. The pop-out wall paneling that creates the airport and park benches are a bonus touch that actually move the scenic changes faster than some of the ill-paced scenes. Conn knows how to tastefully furnish a set as well, maintaining the illusion of who Greg and Kate are as a couple without lavishly overcrowding the intimately spaced stage.
Matt Wetzel takes up the character role of Tom/Phyllis/Leslie and becomes a real scream when it comes to chewing background scenery. Flamboyantly vibrant and full of animations of all sorts, Wetzel revives some of the more stifling scenes and generally keeps the audience interested in the moments in which one of his personas occupies the stage. His portrayal as Phyllis will have you literally laughing out loud, and while his portrayal of both Leslie and Tom might make you turn your head to the side in one of those “what am I watching?” type moments, there are plenty of chuckles to be had there as well. Wetzel carefully prevents character bleed from occurring in his three roles, making sure that Tom, Phyllis, and Leslie are each their own unique, special weirdo.
Allisson Comotto is the pedigree breadwinner of the production. From the very first moment the audience encounters Comotto sniffing about on the stage (and then tastefully but very obviously relieving herself under Kate’s desk) through to the show’s conclusion, there is resplendent radiance all about her, balanced to perfection between canine behavior and human anthropomorphizing of a dog. Comotto might just split your ears open with her “Hey! Hey, hey!” yappy barking, that sounds freakishly like a small yappy dog, but it’s perfect for the character. The energy that she exudes as Sylvia is second to none in this production and really drives the plot forward. Truly a hybrid of vigorous vivacity and solemn sincerity, Comotto masters each moment, building dramatic tension, and winning the hearts of the audience from start to finish. With her puppy dog face of worried nerves whenever she thinks she’s in trouble, or that growly snarly expression she puts forth when she wants to show everyone who’s boss, Comotto has crafted a superb instance of a human-dog or dog-human and ultimately makes the show well worth watching.
You won’t want to miss Allison Comotto as Sylvia (or the background antic of Matt Wetzel) in this production of Sylvia this summer as it is truly something special!
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
Sylvia plays through June 30, 2019 at Cockpit in Court in the upstairs Cabaret Space of The Robert and Eleanor Romadka College Center at the Community College of Baltimore County Essex Campus— 7201 Rossville Boulevard, Essex MD. For tickets call the box office at (443) 840-2787 or purchase them online.