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'Sylvia' goes from comics page to stage premiere



Cartoonist Nicole Hollander's mouthpiece "Sylvia" simply can't stop giving advice. Mostly at home in a bathtub that doubles as a desk, this know-it-all analyst has, since 1980, been telling us to "Get a grip."

Syndicated in more than 60 newspapers, including the Evening Sun, "Sylvia" has now become a stage star. Following a seven-month run in Chicago in 1991, the musical comedy "Sylvia's Real Good Advice" is receiving its East Coast premiere in a Horizons Theatre production at George Washington University.

As a comic strip character come to stage life, Sylvia has a snappy comeback for every crisis that hits her. When a patient asks "Does nothing last forever?" Sylvia replies, "red wine on a white couch" without missing a beat. She's an opinionated, fortysomething broad who fantasizes that life without men would mean no crime and a lot of fat, happy women. Not that she doesn't like men. In fact, she hangs out at ex-boyfriend and eternal pal Harry's bar.

"She's a tough babe with a highly irreverent and ironic sense of humor," Ms. Hollander says of the comic strip character whom she describes as a composite of her older female relatives. "The strip talks about women's experience without any kind of filter."

Similarly, the 53-year-old cartoonist tells it like it is, without any filtering. By the time she started drawing "Sylvia" she was already on the other side of 40 and had stored up plenty opinions of her own.

"It's true that life began at 40 for me, but I didn't think about that at the time. If I had, I would've been worried," Ms. Hollander says from her Chicago home.

Instead, made confident by the illustrative experience gained as graphic designer for a feminist magazine, the Spokeswoman, she assembled a book of cartoons introducing "Sylvia." One publishing house she approached balked at the idea -- "Here I was with a feminist humor book, which they thought was an oxymoron" -- but another publisher said yes and the book led to the current newspaper comic strip.

Ms. Hollander says that over the years she was approached by people wanting to transform "Sylvia" into a cabaret act or play, but she finally decided to tackle the project herself. Ultimately working with several collaborators to turn her comic strip into a loosely plotted musical comedy, Ms. Hollander says that at first "we sat around, cut out cartoons and arranged them according to subject. When we saw things together, then we could elaborate on themes."

Although she says it took a while for the show to take its finished form, at least there was some theatrical precedent in going from the two-dimensional comic strip frame to three-dimensional stage space. As a mini-genre, comic strips-turned-plays include "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman," "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," "Snoopy," "Doonesbury" and, of course, "Annie."

Despite its lengthy run in Chicago, "Sylvia's Real Good Advice" hasn't been well-received critically in our nation's opinion capital. The Washington Post review was outright dismissive, while the Washington Times did find some lightweight charm in Sylvia's wacky encounters with her health food-obsessed daughter, personified cats who lay claim to everything in the house, a Devil worried about people so eager to sell their souls for a new car, and an outer space Alien seeking advice on "outercourse."

Directed by Leslie B. Jacobson, co-founder and artistic director of Horizons Theatre, the Washington production does have in its favor a clever set in which a newspaper page-like stage wall serves as backdrop for such cartoonishly oversized breakfast table props as salt and pepper shakers, and toast complete with pillow-sized pats of butter.

"We wanted the effect to be like what happens if you accidentally leave the newspaper propped up as you go out in the morning. As when you leave toys in the nursery, things come to life. And so the cartoon characters come to life," Ms. Jacobson explains.

"I think some cartoons exist on exaggeration," she says, hastening to add that while " 'Sylvia' has its extremes, they are extremes you could find in life. I started out with the cast by telling them I don't find two-dimensional characters very interesting on stage, so if they're coming to life they're coming to three-dimensional life. There can be extreme, bold-stroked sketches, but that's different from caricature.

"The challenge is that [the show is] very episodic. In trying to string them together in a musical review format, I think the glue is the strength of Sylvia's personality. She's always talking tough about how her patients need to get their love life together -- 'Get a grip!' is her line -- but at the same time she represents an unconditional love. In her world, there is room for the Devil and an Alien."

Ms. Jacobson has a lot of admiration for this comic strip character:

"Women past 45 are relegated to mother-elder statesman roles in our society. What I like about 'Sylvia' is that this woman and her friends are into their 40s and 50s and yet they're still sexy and into the world."


What: "Sylvia's Real Good Advice"

Where: Marvin Center Theatre at George Washington University in Washington

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 2 p.m.. and 7 p.m. Sunday

Call: (202) 994-6178

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