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Man's best friend 'Sylvia'
Updated: 2004-03-26 09:45

Young actress Wen Yang plays the lovely dog ``Sylvia,'' a role originated in Shanghai by Jin Xing, the sex-change choreographer, in the eponymous comedy play ``Sylvia.'' Now in its fourth run -- and its first without Jin -- critics are wondering if ``Sylvia'' without Jin can be a success.

The sex-change choreographer, Jin Xing. [file photo]
What can a dog offer its owner? Laughter, enjoyment and good company. But what if this little creature becomes a barrier between you and your lover, then what? One answer may be found in the play ``Sylvia,''a romantic comedy by contemporary American writer A.R. Gurney that tonight begins its fourth run at the Shanghai Drama Arts Theater.

Middle-aged couple Greg and Kate have a comfortable life, their reward after years of hard work. Kate is seeing her career as a popular writer take off. Then along comes Sylvia, a dog that Greg found in the park, or perhaps more accurately, a dog who found Greg.

A street-smart mixture of Labrador and poodle, Sylvia becomes a hilarious bone of contention between husband and wife. She offers Greg an escape from the frustrations of his job, and the unknowns of middle age. But to Kate, Sylvia becomes a rival for Greg's affection. The pet thinks Kate just doesn't understand the relationship between man and dog, and she lets the audience know everything she is thinking.

``The meanings embodied in this play are profound and smart,'' comments producer Zhu Dakun. ``It explores human relationships and human nature through the very memorable character of this dog.'' The play also explores the increasingly prominent crises of middle age in modern society. From a dog's point of view, we see how middle-aged people react when encountering the triple pressures of society, career and family. The play aroused great interest in its birthplace -- the United States.

The Houston Chronicle called ``Sylvia'' a play that ``quite credibly represents the sudden midlife passion, whether it be an affair, a pet, or an obsessively pursued hobby, that leaves the love-struck person's longtime mate baffled.'' The New York Times hailed ``Sylvia'' as ``dramatic literature that is stuffed with memorable love scenes.''

When the play made its debut in 2002 in Shanghai, it instantly became a blockbuster with an unprecedented box office record, with each show exceeding 40,000 yuan (US$4,820). Some dog owners even organized post-performance meetings to discuss their feelings and thoughts. In part, the Shanghai production was so successful because of Jin Xing, who played as Sylvia. Shanghai's most famous sex change, this pioneer contemporary dancer won public acclaim for her performance. Jin has said that she is the single best actress for the role.

Audiences can make that deliberation, since this time, young actress Wen Yang replaces Jin as Sylvia. Wen began her performing career in huagu (flowery drum), a traditional Chinese opera as a teenager, followed by professional acting training at school. In recent years, she has often appeared on Shanghai's drama stage, and is considered a promising performer. Last year, during the third run of ``Sylvia'' in Shanghai, Wen and Jin alternated the title role. ``At first, there was a great deal of pressure on me, mainly because of my predecessor's enormous success.'' she says.

``At that time, I always wanted to present a different Sylvia to audience, different from Jin's, but then I realized that this idea was quite childish.'' She explains that Jin's perfectly interpreted Sylvia is actually a good model for her, allowing her to use its essence in her own performance. ``I've studied the videos of Jin's version and mine so as to know where my deficiencies lie and how I can improve them,'' she continues.

``I really admire Jin's versatile body language.'' As to her own interpretation of Sylvia, she says that she tries not to portray her as a dog, but instead, create a combination of a human and dog. ``I think that Wen does very well in capturing Sylvia's character,'' comments Lu Liang, a veteran actor who plays Greg. ``It's not easy for her, since audiences are already familiar with Jin's version.'' Although it's a big challenge for Wen, it's one she is still willing to take . ``I've been on the stage for more than three years, and people tend to have this idea that I'm tender and very feminine, always a good girl,'' Wen chuckles. ``But I want a change and a breakthrough. Sylvia is a good opportunity for me.'' For Lu, Jin and Wen's Sylvias have different characteristics.

``Jin is not a professional performer, so her acting is very natural and sensible,'' he says. ``While Wen's acting, on the other hand, is very skilled since she has had good training. So the results are a bit different.'' Producer Zhu is also pleased with Wen's version.

``Her Sylvia was endorsed by audiences last year,'' he says. ``We've also made some adjustments this time, which we think will make for a better play.'' One of those changes is young actor Zhao Da's role as an effeminate psychologist. In the previous versions of the play, the psychologist only became effeminate when he was with his patients, but for this version, the director wants him to play the role in an effeminate manner throughout.

``Well this really poses a problem,'' says Zhao who's the furthest thing from effeminate. ``To be frank, it's not easy for me to act like a woman. But then again, it drives me to practice my acting skills.'' Time: 7:15pm, March 26-April 4 Venue: Shanghai Drama Arts Theater, 288 Anfu Rd Tickets: 80-800 yuan Tel: 6473-0123, 6473-4567

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