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'Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike' brings hilarity to Chekhov characters

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" at the KC Rep.

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A dysfunctional family, all named after Anton Chekhov characters, Vanya, Sonia, and Masha come to grips with some d ifficult lessons in the Christopher Durang comedy, "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" that opened March 21 at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre to hearty laughter, break out applause, and and standing ovation.

Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” opened March 20 and runs through April 6.  Zachary Andrews (Spike) and Mary Beth Fisher (Masha).
Don Ipock
Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” opened March 20 and runs through April 6.  Vanessa Severo (Cassandra) and Tom Aulino (Vanya) add a little voodoo twist to the action.
Don Ipock

Durang’s comedy takes the dashed dreams and hopeless despair of the Russian-themed characters and melds them into a farce that looks at the empty lives and disillusionment of characters that appear to have no other goal than watching for a Blue Heron to arrive or purchase unconditional love from a hot, young buck-stud.

While the main characters of Vanya, Sonia, and Masha all provide the fodder for the laugh-fest, the supporting characters of Spike, Cassandra and Nina just fan the flames. Spike certainly adds to the humor when he and Masha arrive for a weekend, with hopes of a costume party at the Dorothy Parker house. Housekeeper, Cassandra, connects with her namesake from Greek mythology and foretells dark premonitions. Nina’s ingenue with aspirations of an acting career just adds to the comedy.

Credit Eric Rosen for assembling a super talented cast of New York and Kansas City locals for the farce. After opening night, Rosen said he had not directed a comedy for several years. He obviously was not rusty and certainly up for the task. The casting and concept for the play garnered lots of laughs.

Rosen’s cast for "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," features: Tom Aulino (Vanya), who recently directed the Rep’s hit production of "The Mystery of Irma Vep" and acted in Annie Baker’s "Circle Mirror Transformation"; Barbara Walsh (Sonia), a Tony Award-nominee for "Falsettos", is appearing for the first time at the Rep; Mary Beth Fisher (Masha) who starred in Kansas City Rep’s production of Tom Stoppard’s "Indian Ink" and who is a veteran of many Chicago, New York and regional theatre productions; Zach Andrews (Spike) who just completed his Rep appearance in "Romeo and Juliet"; Emily Peterson (Nina), a veteran of several seasons of "A Christmas Carol" at the Rep; and Vanessa Severo (Cassandra) whose KC Rep productions include "August: Osage County," "Cabaret," and "A Christmas Carol."

As Vanya, Aulino saves his best for a rant in Act II. While he establishes his character from his initial walk on stage, his character builds slowly until all Hell breaks loose over the seemingly innocent former task of licking a stamp. During that lament, Durang’s message of the show comes to full focus. Aulino plays each scene with ease and his character consistently draws laughs. Vanya’s scenes with Sonia set the tone for the play.

Sonia exemplifies the always suffering Chekhov character that seems to have no life, no direction, no hope, and no purpose. Her whining and complaining help Walsh establish a comical twist on a desperately dull character, wallowing in self-pity. Walsh plays the plain-Jane Sonia as well as the costumed “Maggie Smith playing the Wicked Queen in Snow White.” She’s funny in both characters.

Masha, the successful sister of the trio comes to life via Fisher. She’s dominant from her entrance through the final scene. She’s funny, quick, poised, responsive and a perfect compliment to all the other characters. She’s flashy--next to the drab Sonia. She’s happy--next to Vanya’s calm persona. She’s wicked--next to Nina’s innocence. She’s demure--next to Spike’s sexuality. She’s in-tune--with Cassandra’s precognitions. Fisher’s character necessitates that she changes quickly to play off and enhance all the other characterizations. Fisher draws lots of laughs as the aging actress and even more laughs when she’s sporting a Snow White costume.

Durang’s comedy allows each character–even the supporting players–to establish individual moments, complete with funny monologues–that enriches the production. Each of the three main siblings shines throughout the show, but it’s the supporting characters that drew the audiences attention during their individual pieces.

Andrews is particularly funny as an unsuccessful actor/successful exhibitionist who seems to know how to take his clothes off and grind his pelvis. His acting audition is funny and he’s so funny as a dim-witted, empty-headed stud.

Cassandra, the housekeeper with both attitude and foresight entertains the audience from her explosion into the house early in Act I. Her lamentations and predictions draw loud laughs. Her exits drew applause throughout the show as the audience recognized and rewarded her performance. Severo absolutely steals each scene she’s in. The character she created goes beyond all limits. The audience signaled their approval throughout both acts.

As Nina, Emily Peterson plays a naive ingenue with distinction. She appears awestruck in meeting a famous actress and unveils her aspirations of becoming an actress. Nina’s character serves as a challenge to Masha, the successful actress and keeper of the stud. Peterson’s interpretation of a character in Vanya’s script is funny and hopelessly horrid. She’s a hoot.

“Chekhov famously opined that his brooding, angst-filled plays were comedies, and Durang has shown the world that Chekhov was right,” Rosen said. “Pulling characters from famous Chekhov plays and placing them in a contemporary Bucks County, PA crumbling family manse is absurd — and Durang is a master of the form. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a deeply funny, profoundly smart, and ultimately moving comedy, and I can't wait to share our co-production with the great audiences at Kansas City Rep and Center Stage.”

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” makes its Kansas City premiere under the direction of Eric Rosen, executive artistic director for the Rep. The play is co-produced with Baltimore’s Center Stage. After closing at the Rep, the production moves to Baltimore with three of the local cast scheduled to reprise their roles there. Andrews, Peterson and Walsh continue their performances in the Maryland production.

The creative and Production team consists of Donald Eastman (Scenic Design); Melissa Torchia (Costume Design), Victor En Yu Tan (Lighting Design), Joshua Horvath (Sound Design), and Stephanie Clapper (Casting). Mary R. Honour is Production Stage Manager.

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” by Christopher Durang, directed by Eric Rosen, runs through April 6 at Spencer Theatre in the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center on the UMKC campus in Kansas City, MO. Tickets prices are $20 for students and $29-$59 for adults. For ticket and performance information, call the Rep Box Office at 816-235-2700 or visit www.KCRep.org For group ticket sales, please call 816-235-6122.