For a perfectly delightful way to end the summer season, there’s no better option than Shakespeare & Company’s well-cast, divinely acted, occasionally giddy and ultimately touching production of the Tony Award-winning comedy, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” by the frequently manic but nearly always culturally astute playwright Christopher Durang.
Although it takes place in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, the play is equally at home in the Berkshires where its rustic country setting and descriptions of blue herons and celebrated residences fits nicely into the area’s environment. I was a bit worried that the narrow stage at Shakespeare & Co’s Elayne P. Bernstein Playhouse, where “Vanya and Sonia, et al.” is playing through September 14, would not accommodate the requirements of Durang’s play, but set designer Patrick Brennan has created a comfy-feeling country day room that overlooks a pond that more than adequately suggests the expanse of rooms that exist within the house itself.
If the title immediately brings Cheknov to mind, well, that’s deliberate on Durang’s part. But while Chekhov’s so-called comedies bring minimal laughter to today’s audiences, “Vanya and Sonia, etc.” provides a constant cavalcade of guffaws, grins and knowing amusement through Durang’s witty dialogue, choice physical moments, and the deliciously odd behavior of its six characters. This is indeed one of the most popular plays being performed around the country at regional theaters and director Matthew Penn’s exquisite production demonstrates exactly why.
The play focuses on three middle aged siblings who grew up in this house in Bucks County. Vanya and Sonia remained here to take care of their increasingly disabled elderly parents, former Chekhov scholars and community theater enthusiasts, while Masha left home to pursue a once promising career in motion pictures that has unfortunately culminated in a series of slasher flicks and their sequels. Vanya, who is gay, and the adopted Sonia, who suffers from extremely low self-esteem particularly when her sister is around, are bothered by the ennui and routine that has set into their lives. When the self-centered and overly dramatic Masha shows up one weekend with her hunky but dim boy toy, Spike, in tow, the plot kicks into high gear, particularly when it becomes apparent that Masha has plans to sell the house.
Hilariously complicating matters is the family housekeeper, aptly named Cassandra, who spins out predictions and warnings unceasingly whether or not they bear any resemblance to the truth and later reveals a genuine talent for voodoo. There’s also the sweet, innocent, optimistic young woman from next door, with the Chekhovian moniker of Nina (think “The Seagull” of course), who not only catches Spike’s eye but develops a special platonic relationship with the man she asks if she can call “Uncle Vanya” in one of the play’s easily-understandable Chekhov jokes.
Throw in a costume party at a house formerly owned by Dorothy Parker that finds Masha going as Snow White while wanting her siblings to accompany her as two of the dwarfs, and a play that Vanya has written unbeknownst to his family, and you have the ingredients for a tasty stew of a weekend that will not only be hilarious but bring some welcome changes in perspective to these characters.
Penn clearly understands Durang’s play which he directs with style and an appropriate momentum. He allows Durang’s humor to spin naturally out of the characters and does not add in any sight jokes that are not outgrowths of the situation. He has encouraged his actors to carefully develop their characters, which each one has done appropriately and to maximum appeal.
Jim Frangione’s Vanya comes across as a somewhat lumpy but intelligent, caring brother who, aware that he may have missed out on certain opportunities in his life, leads a self-satisfied life nonetheless enjoying his intellectual pursuits and admiring the natural landscape around the family home. He keeps his regrets to himself and strives to please the people around him, which makes Frangione’s take on Vanya’s hysterical and hyper-active monologue in the second act so wondrous and compelling. A mixture of contempt over the modern technological age tempered with an acknowledgement that the peaceful days of his “Ozzie and Harriet” filled youth may not have made complete sense, is a stunning comedic tour de force.
A more touching and resilient monologue is delivered by Tod Randolph as the lost, regretful Sonia, who feels that her life has not only been wasted in caring for the parents’ rather lengthy and complicated illnesses but is now really over. Randolph ably captures the shy almost reclusive characteristics of Sonia, while revealing her quick wit and yearning, that culminates in a one sided telephone conversation that has the audience audibly choking back disappointment and a few moments later cheering in one of the play’s best turnarounds.
As Masha, Elizabeth Aspenlieder depicts the fading star as a whirlwind of need and ego, showing her clinging to the aspiring actor who has become her boyfriend as she treats her siblings with disdain if she’s aware of their presence at all. Aspenlieder has definite fun in this satiric portrait of celebrity entitlement, but simultaneously is able to incorporate Masha’s fears and uncertainties particularly surrounding opportunities for actresses of a certain age.
The Spike of actor Mat Leonard certainly has the physical requirements down pat for his role and keeps his character’s preening and exhibitionism to a minimum, although he clearly communicates Spike’s self-absorption and misplaced overconfidence in his acting abilities. His audition scene, in which we see him portray only his side of the dialogue, is genuinely amusing, as is his eagerness to run up the stairs and demonstrate his sexual prowess to Masha.
Angel Moore’s winning performance as Cassandra demonstrates Durang’s tendencies toward the absurd, as Moore’s various entrances see her screeching out warnings or wielding a feathered shaman’s wand to ward off the evil. Then there’s that voodoo doll dressed oddly like a famous Disney character. Moore has one especially delicious outburst where she spouts off predictions while complaining that no one ever believes her, in a Trojan Woman-like tirade that incorporates Greek tragedy, commercial jingles and the lyrics to popular songs. Olivia Saccomanno inserts a sweet gentle spirit into the evening as the neighbors’ niece, Nina, even as she is fawning over her acting idol, Masha, in whose footsteps she would like to follow one day. She is particularly delightful as she steps into the leading role of Vanya’s play, tackling as only Durang can present, the leading role of a molecule.
Mary Readinger has created some delightful costumes, particularly Masha’s Snow White outfit and the two dwarf costumes she has conveniently brought with her, as well as the various outfits that Spike frequently slips out of at a moment’s notice and one dazzling evening dress for Sonia, a stunning green with sequins topped off the slightest hint of a tiara. Matthew Miller’s lighting suggestively captures the various times of day and evening experienced on the sun porch, while Ian Sturges Milliken’s sound design adds appropriate nature sounds and an ethereal accompaniment to the reading of Vanya’s secret play.
While this all may sound a bit too zany, rest assured that “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is grounded in reality, as slightly off-kilter as it may seem. It works thanks to the very real humanity that Durang has discovered in each of his characters and the expert and individualistic way in which Penn and his cast have made them come alive on stage.
For information and tickets, call the box office at 413.637.3353 or visit the Shakespeare & Company website at www.shakespeare.org.
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