Bizarre love triangle

The dog Sylvia (played by Jin Xing, left) bonds with a man (Guan Dongtian, right), who finds it at a park.
The dog Sylvia (played by Jin Xing, left) bonds with a man (Guan Dongtian, right), who finds it at a park.PHOTO: CEIBA CULTURE AND MEDIA

The play Sylvia, about a dog and its adopters, offers a study in relationships

REVIEW / THEATRE

SYLVIA

Ceiba Culture and Media

Grand Theatre, MasterCard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands/Last Saturday

This Mandarin adaptation of the 1995 off-Broadway comedy raises many questions, but offers few easy answers.

Using a bizarre love triangle between a dog called Sylvia and the middle-aged couple who adopts it, it dives head-on into knotty questions about love, gender and relationships - between humans, and between humans and animals.

The original play, written by American playwright A.R. Gurney, already had its share of controversy when producers initially rejected it on the grounds that equating a woman to a dog - and asking a woman to play a dog - was misogynist and sexist.

In this latest incarnation, having a transgender woman - Chinese actress and dancer Jin Xing - play the dog Sylvia raises even more questions about the representation of transgender people. Admirably, the production does not shy away from these sensitivities, but lays them bare for the viewer.

In the play, a man, Guange (Guan Dongtian), finds Sylvia in a park and takes it home to his wife Ling (Huang Fangling), who is not impressed by the canine.

A bitter rivalry soon develops between wife and dog, and most of the humour comes from the characters treating dogs as humans and vice versa.

For example, in several scenes, the man asks Sylvia to sit. But when arguing heatedly with his wife, he also asks his wife to sit, to her consternation.

The joke continues until a later scene, when the couple goes to see a therapist, who invites the wife to sit on a chair.

But behind the animal jokes lies the question: Why do humans express affection for animals so easily yet struggle to find the words in their human relationships?

What sort of companionship do dogs offer humans that people cannot find in one another?

These questions come fast in the first half, while the second struggles to tie them altogether.

Having the play performed in Mandarin and set in China also creates a trans-cultural tension, speaking to the universal desire for love and companionship.

Of the cast, Jin impresses the most with her Sylvia - walking the fine line between obeying the couple, safeguarding her own interests and finding her place in their home.

Feisty against outsiders, merry when given attention and forgiving even when her owners cause her harm, she is the perfect pet any dog owner would love. Plus, she can bark like a Rottweiler.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2017, with the headline 'Bizarre love triangle'. Print Edition | Subscribe