Stage & Dance

In 'Sylvia' and 'Go, Dog. Go!', actors hit the woof

One of the recurring themes of the play Go, Dog. Go! is Hattie Dog asking M.C. Dog if he likes her hat, which he usually doesn't.

To play M.C. Dog, Chad Bradford had to consider how he should react to Hattie's question.

"A person would just look at the hat and say what they thought," Bradford said Tuesday afternoon, after a school performance of the Lexington Children's Theatre's show. "But a dog would probably sniff it, he would probably touch it and even lick it, then give his opinion."

Six actors have had to contemplate how to act like a dog for the Children's Theatre's season finale. But they aren't the only thespians in Central Kentucky who are sharpening their canine chops.

In Danville, Mary Anne Matthews has been hustling around on all fours to play the title role in Sylvia, a part that Sarah Jessica Parker originated at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1995.

Go, Dog. Go! and Sylvia are decidedly different shows.

The children's theater show, primarily geared toward preschool and young elementary school students, is based on P.D. Eastman's children's book about monochromatic dogs who zip around in cars, work and don't sleep, although they're supposed to.

Sylvia is a play for adults, about a man who finds a stray dog in the park and develops an unhealthy obsession with her that threatens his job and marriage.

The Danville production has Matthews engaged in a lot more things that people are used to seeing dogs do because she interacts with her owner, Greg, played by Bill Nichols, and other people.

"She tells him, 'I think you're God,'" Matthews said before a Tuesday night rehearsal. "It think that's how a lot of dogs probably view their owners."

Matthews went into auditions hoping to play Greg's wife, Kate. But a key moment that told director Crystal Nichols that Matthews might be right for the role was the way she read one of Sylvia's recurring lines: "Hey, hey, hey."

"Some people read just like it was written," said Bill Nichols, the director's husband. "But she got that it was supposed to be a bark."

As Sylvia, Matthews gets to bark at cats and jump on house guests, and she even pees on the carpet — out of view, of course.

"When they confront me with it, I get a little look on my face like, 'Yeaaaah ... I did it,'" Matthews said, demonstrating the sheepish, mischievous grin that comes over her face.

Matthews says that after she was cast as Sylvia, she spent a lot of time studying her own dog, Zoe.

Go, Dog. Go! cast members also spent time looking at their dogs or friends' dogs. They also paid attention to the breeds they were playing and the chief characteristics of those breeds.

"I'm a bichon," said Andrea Graves, who plays Blue Dog. "And bichons are yappy little dogs, so, since I'm a singer, I could do this high-pitched yap."

Oti Obi, who plays Yellow Dog, a basset hound, said, "One of the keys to it is being consistent because dogs' behavior doesn't change much."

It is also very childlike.

A few scenes in Go, Dog. Go! reinforce that idea, including one in which lead dog M.C. Dog tries to get the other dogs to go to sleep, and they keep waking up and playing under the covers and making noise.

"There's a lot of stuff kids can relate to in this show," said Bradford, who plays M.C. Dog.

Ashley Isenhower, who plays Green Dog, said, "The kids pick up on it all the time. We've had school shows where, when he turns out the light, the kids will yell, 'They're not going to sleep.'"

Although Sylvia is an adult play, Matthews said childishness was a characteristic of her performance too, particularly in seeking attention and trying to break rules like "stay off the furniture."

Another common factor for both shows is that these are dogs with human characteristics.

"One of our first questions was, 'How doglike are we?'" Graves said. Director Jeremy Kisling told them, "'You're about 90 percent human.'"

Kisling said, "It would have been hard to do an interesting play if they had all been crawling around on all fours the entire time."

In Sylvia, Matthews has to stoke the central conflict of the play, even asserting that she's "the other woman" in Greg's life.

Even with a large dose of humanity, Matthews said playing a dog has been a lot of fun.

"I normally wouldn't jump on furniture and paw someone," she said. "But playing a dog, you're allowed to do all of that."