Arts Listings

‘Sylvia’ the Musical at Stagebridge

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday January 28, 2010 - 08:50:00 AM
Joan Mankin plays the title character in <i>Sylvia’s Advice On How to Age Gracefully On the Planet Denial</i>, in a new musical based on the comic strip by Nicole Hollander. Sarah Moore and Franklin Hall play Sylvia’s cats, Lassie the Wonder Cat and Kismet.
Eric Ferrante
Joan Mankin plays the title character in Sylvia’s Advice On How to Age Gracefully On the Planet Denial, in a new musical based on the comic strip by Nicole Hollander. Sarah Moore and Franklin Hall play Sylvia’s cats, Lassie the Wonder Cat and Kismet.

Singing cats in a bathtub? With a cigarette-smoking, negative advice col-umnist beneath the bubbles? (Well, “the aging process can be funny ...”) 

Oakland’s Stagebridge, the nation’s oldest senior theater company, committed to bridging the generation gap and breaking down stereotypes about age, is staging the world premiere of Sylvia’s Advice on How to Age Gracefully on the Planet Denial. A musical no less, the production was adapted by Martha Boesing (with songs by Scrumbly Koldewyn) from cartoonist Nicole Hollander’s recent Sylvia collection, Tales of Graceful Aging From the Planet Denial. The show opens Feb. 5 at the Ashby Stage, with acclaimed clown and comic actor Joan Mankin as Sylvia herself. 

And Hollander, Sylvia’s creator, whose comic strip is a regular feature in the Daily Planet, will be on hand for a special appearance of her own at the Ashby Stage at 7 p.m., Feb. 7, along with adaptor-director Boesing, reading and taking questions, followed by a reception and book signing. 

Hollander will also appear this Saturday from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. at the Castro Valley Public Library, 3600 Norbridge Ave. (reputedly to be kibbitzed by Joan Mankin’s Sylvia) and Sunday from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. at the Albany Public Library, 1247 Marin Ave. Both library events are free (745-1499; 

“Richard Bray [of Alameda County Libraries] is a good friend,” Hollander remarked on the phone from her home in Chicago. “He managed a wonderful bookstore, the Guild Bookstore, here, then went to work for P.e.N.; after that, libraries. We’re going to meet in Berkeley at Saul’s Deli. There are no Jewish delis in Chicago. And we’re already having an argument about it. Richard said something about a problem with the pickles ...” 

Hollander was contacted by Boesing, who had been commissioned by Dr. Stuart Kandell, Stagebridge’s executive director, who wanted “to produce a humorous play on the aging process ... Reading Tales of Graceful Aging, laughing out loud, I thought, ‘this would work!’ ” 

“Martha, who’s the friend of a friend, called up with the idea,” said Hollander. “I really liked her, felt connected to her—and felt she had the experience to do it. It’s interesting: the play is truer to the material of age, much more real, than my book—which IS the Planet Denial!” 

Hollander has met Mankin, “and I’m really pleased. She’s got the edge and the energy. I know she’s gonna grill me, call me to task [in Castro Valley], so I’m preparing.” 

She also vouched for the vocal abilities of the cats, Lassie the Wonder Cat (Sarah Moore) and Kismet (Franklin Hall), who’re both interviewed in Maryann Maslan’s ongoing story of the production in Stagebridge’s magazine at 

(“I love the asides to the cats,” Mankin told Maslan, “it’s part of the outrageousness of the play.” But being a dog person offstage, she remarked that learning to talk to cats “has been an intense change.”) 

Two musicals have been made from previous Sylvia books: Sylvia’s Real Good Advice and Female Problems. Speaking of a byzantine series of syndication service buyouts and of sometimes getting dropped through the cracks between, Hollander brightened up: “Maybe Martha’s play will put me on Easy Street!” 

Hollander has commented wryly on her first reading of “wordless” comics, like Henri and Little King, and of how the humor in the family came from her mother, her father being the audience. She was a graduate art student, gaining a master’s of fine arts from Boston University, thinking she’d paint her “dark side.” Cartooning was nothing she thought about; there was no career in it, no expression, for a young woman.  

Then, “during the Carter administraadministration,” Hollander redesigned the feminist magazine the Spokeswoman—and drew her first cartoons. “I think it came very quickly, because I didn’t have a lot of guidance,” she remarked to a question about the gestation time for Sylvia, her other characters (and cats), and idiosyncracies like the use of her own handwriting. “The big syndicates worried more about what I’d have to say. Certain stuff they found objectionable. They didn’t know what to do about politics, or what I thought about civil liberties or the government. So they left me alone about these other things. It was a liberating process—and some of it was because sexism went in my favor, in a way. It was a liberating process—if I didn’t want to make a lot of money. They let me alone—or they’d drop me!” 

Her new book, The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 Years of Graphic Misbehavior, Reagan to Obama, will be out in August. “It was a heck of a job. I look at the characters and can’t remember anymore what’s happening to these people. And I had to make comments on the cartoons!” 

Thirty years of Sylvia. The aging process can be very funny, indeed. 


For more on Nicole Hollander, see An excellent brief memoir, about humor and her family, with a bio, can be found at the Jewish Woman’s Archive, 





Opens Feb. 5 and shows at 8 p.m., Thursday–Sunday through Feb. 21, with weekend matinees at 2 p.m. at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. $15–$20. 444-4755. 


Cartoonist Nicole Hollander will appear, along with adaptor-director Martha Boesing, at 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 7, at the Ashby Stage in lieu of the play. $15. 


Hollander also will appear at the Castro Valley Public Library with actress Joan Mankin, 12:30–1:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 30 (3600 Norbridge Ave., Castro Valley) and at the Albany Public Library, 1:30–2:30 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 31 (1247 Marin Ave., Albany). Both events are free. 745-1499.