Monday, November 3, 2014

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike Brings Hope Home

By K. Michael Moore
Photos By Lily-Allen Duenas

The company of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
I’m going to confess something: I adore intimate staging in theater. I love black boxes, church basements, stage seating, and all of the oddball found space work that goes on. If you haven’t seen a show at Old Creamery Theater’s Studio Stage, Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike would be a great production with which to start. Literally the Amana Middle School’s band rehearsal room, converted with a carefully crafted set and rounded thrust stage, VSMS isn’t performed, it simply and profoundly exists… right in front of your nose.

VSMS presents the story of Vanya (Patrick Du Laney) and his (adopted) sister, Sonia (Marquetta Senters). Having cared for their now deceased parents, who were aged professors with a penchant for Chekhov, Vanya and Sonia are in the long-term process of lamenting their lack of having lived. Middle aged now, and without the sympathetic mission of being home caregivers, Vanya and Sonia have little to occupy their time, save staring out at the pond and bickering with one another.

Jobless, hopeless, spouseless, bipolar (in Sonia’s self-diagnosed case), and entirely without prospects, Vanya and Sonia survive on a monthly stipend from their estranged sister, Masha (Nina Swanson), who left home to become a movie star. But like many aging debutantes, Masha’s own prospects are starting to dim in her approaching twilight years.

Masha returns home, with a much younger boyfriend, Spike (Jim Vogt) in tow, to visit a neighbor’s costume party, immediately stirring up old bitterness, jealousies and sibling calamity, all of which are laced and laden with hilarious barbs and zings in every direction.

Durang’s language is excellently exchanged throughout the play, most notably in the opening scene between Du Laney and Senters; emotions and loyalties turn on a dime without a missed beat. In many scripts, the exposition and scene setting material, while necessary, is often tedious. Senters and Du Laney give us a full picture of their world - rapidly and with verve. Instead of a needed-but-dreaded list of events and past information, this jaded, humorous and often touching exchange conveys needed background while keeping the audience laughing. This is a testament not only to the playwright’s words, but to the skill of the actors as they convey them.

The twists and turns of the plot, I must admit, I want to leave as a surprise. I prefer instead to address the choices of this production.

Marquetta Senters and Nina Swanson
Sonia, to begin with, is perhaps the most interesting character in the play (to me): self-described mentally ill, perennially feeling like an outsider, and adopted into the family to boot, Sonia is complex, moody and impossible to predict. Senters takes this depth of character and plays with it carefully. With the simplest change of inflection, she shifts from giddiness to feelings of total worthlessness. The viewer goes right along with her on every rocky and difficult path. With the exception of a few instances of tripping over lines, which could easily be attributed to an opening day performance, Senters paints a lovely portrait of a complex, witty, and infinitely redeemable but troubled soul. Particularly upon Masha’s entrance, Senters changes every single tone, very subtly but powerfully, like an emotional key change, and the character of the whole play changes with her. During her phone conversation in Act II, the desperation, fear and confusion are palpable, as she conveys Sonia in a situation she’s never experienced.

Masha’s appearance is meant to be a whirlwind – worlds collide as she enters and immediately insists on taking center stage in the family home. Swanson is terrific as the demanding, self-centered actress facing her own aging downfall. She gives us a scattered and seeking Masha, and especially in her scenes with Senters – which range from destructive to heartwarming to hilarious – she displays her range as a performer.

Vogt’s Spike is treat to watch, a comical addition to the piece, who operates in exactly the single dimension Durang intends. Spike is a flirtatious, ignorantly egotistical “hasn’t quite yet made it” actor under Masha’s wing, and serves as plot foil and arm candy to Masha’s (and at times Vanya’s) mid-life calamities. Vogt carries this well, relishing in Spike’s racy, dopey, gregarious behavior, to the delight and dismay of characters and audience alike. Any flaw here is, in my opinion, one of the script, in that Spike really displays little if any character growth, exiting the play in the same self-absorbed cloud in which he enters. This may, perhaps, be Durang’s intent.

Cassandra (portrayed by Hannah Spina) is the household cleaning person. Spina gives her a spunky, all or nothing quality. Just like her namesake of Greek myth, Cassandra is prone to visions of doom (or so she claims), spouting warning after warning that no one around her will heed. Like the many Chekhov references laced throughout the script, Cassandra’s blatant tie to classic literature is simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and pure homage. Spina’s tonality and sudden movement about the small stage are comical and endearing, and serve Cassandra’s precognitive melodrama well. But the moments where Spina’s performance as Cassandra truly shine are those when she is not in the spotlight, but rather the focus is on another character. In these moments, Spina is intent on every word and action around her, ultimately present in the moment of the play. This is a difficult thing for an actor “in the background” to do, and heightens the intensity of everything the other members of the ensemble are doing.

Natalie Schmit plays Nina, a young star-struck actress young visiting family next door. Schmit portrays the naivety of this character well, but also the depth. Nina is the only character without some apparent neurosis, and as such must be believable as a sort of lightning rod for the other characters, particularly Vanya. Schmit does this nimbly, without forgetting the simple grace of this character, nor her apparent confusion at some of the happenings around her... and when Sonia, with typical Chekhovian despondence, declares, “I mustn’t get my hopes up,” it is Nina who delivers Durang’s jab to the great Russian wordsmith by saying, “You must always get your hopes up,” thus giving us a clue to Durang’s message: Life is never over. If we feel we haven’t lived, it is merely because we haven’t chosen to start.

Marquetta Senters, Nina Swanson, and Patrick DuLaney
I intentionally save Vanya for last. Patrick Du Laney is well known to the Old Creamery crowd, and it should come as no surprise that his performance as Vanya is excellent. Du Laney’s tiny acting choices, like the moments he literally titters at something that amuses Vanya, his subtle facial changes as he reacts to his sisters without wanting to be noticed, serve as carefully chosen reminders that the weary and seemingly disconnected Vanya is actually a passionate, if discontent and immobile, soul. Most poignantly, Du Laney’s nostalgic monologue at the height of the second act is a tear inducing delight. Stumblingly written, often repeating, and quite long for a modern theatrical monologue, this text could be a nightmare for both audience and actor, but Du Laney crafts it into a beautiful roller coaster, not simply of Vanya’s emotion and regret, but our own. He hits every note, high and low, with a passion and a musicality that left me breathless. The intensity of this moment was heightened by the commitment of the ensemble, particularly Spina and Schmit, who seem to cling to every word right along with Vanya. But Du Laney needs no assistance here – his intensity is a driving force, and Vanya’s floundering language is the gear shift and gas pedal.

As an audience member, I generally consider that the hand of the director should be an invisible one. As an actor, of course, I know this is never and should never be the case... but from the seats, if I see something onstage and think “interesting directing choice,” or “I see why the director went there,” it typically tells me something isn’t working quite right, even if it was in fact a good, true, powerful, and beneficial choice. I know many people will disagree with me here – my director friends will perhaps mistake this statement as not understanding nor appreciating good directing. I assure you that is not the case.

With those criteria in mind, director Tim Butterfield is VSMS’s invisible seventh character. Looking back on the show after the fact, I can see his guiding hand, such as in the clever transition moments between scenes that buy the actors needed time for changes and keep the audience engaged. In retrospect I can spot a few moments that were likely specifically massaged. But while watching the performance, in the moment, even with my “Reviewer Guy” hat on, I was blissful in my blindness. That tells me a lot about his understanding of this play, his cast, and the production as a whole.

During the talkback after the show, Butterfield pointed out that VSMS both pokes fun at and pays homage to Chekhov, which is very difficult to do. The play is laced with Chekhov references and jokes, and is chock-full of themes and ideas from his work, but it reads and plays very well to someone not versed in his work as well. It plays with those themes and turns them around. It’s a very funny, touching production, which I strongly encourage you to see.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is playing at Old Creamery’s Studio Stage October 30th through November 16th, Thursday and Sundays at 2 P.M. and Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 P.M. Visit for ticket details.

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