Thursday 26 March 2015

Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike a fun mash-up

Background notes :  Playwright Christopher Durang's 2012 play is not, he insists, a satire about the doomed Russian writer Anton Chekhov who succumbed to tuberculosis after lifelong suffering at age 44 (1904). And while his primary characters all snitch Chekhov names, they are not based directly on Chekhov's people. The brooding gloom and despair of Russia's fading Czardom gives way to Durang's Boomer malaise of angst and anomie and existential neurosis run amok. Which moods are fueled and exacerbated by the characters' greater attraction to their memories and lost lives -- or to to-day's virtual seduction of electronica -- than they are to one another. "My play is not a Chekhov parody... I take Chekhov scenes and characters and put them in a blender," Durang told Playbill's Harry Haun a couple years back.

Indeed, while Chekhov's folks pined away on the Steppes -- despairing both of and for hope -- Durang's cluster of malcontents in VSMS down anti-depressants for Rx-based life solutions instead. Durang laughingly notes through sister Sonia : "If everyone took anti-depressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about."

Storyline is serious silliness :  The chief story-line involves three siblings, V-S-&-M. Each was given a Chekhovian name by their former university professor parents, who also mucked about in community theatre productions where they lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Mom & Dad fetched this bunch up in a rambling old farmhouse they couldn't afford as time wore on and pensions got squeezed. Its mortgage and upkeep for years, now, have been looked after by younger sister Masha, a fading actress from The Big City whose mirror has cracked with age. She's a 40- or 50-something ex-hottie.

Vanya and sister Sonia -- who was adopted at eight and wears that fact like a scarlet letter, or a noose -- have spent their adult lives together taking a stipend from Masha and nursing Mom and Dad until the final curtain rang down on each of them from Alzheimer's. Thus Vanya and Sonia have not themselves, it seems, ever really lived their own lives. When Masha arrives for a surprise visit, she is by now a 5-marriage veteran. After years of absence she parachutes in with boy toy Spike, 20+ years her junior, in tow -- he a one-time bit-part film actor who "almost got" a second role years back. Masha says she is not only a broken actress but a broke one at that. She threatens to sell the farm with its cluster of 10 cherry trees that they all argue might, or might not, an orchard quite make. 

Vanya and Sonia are thrown into a mid-life tizzy at the prospect of losing their bucolic jail cell. Having to face their lifelong ennui and inertia at last is a menacing prospect. Particularly now that Vanya, 57, has but recently admitted to Sonia he is (an unrequited) gay. Sonia, 52, has never had a lover, either, of any gender. Except each other as Bickerton twins whose chief skill is nattery at one another.

Two other characters spice up the action : housekeeper Cassandra who looks through a glass darkly to peer into the recesses of the future (and like her Greek namesake, is not believed). Along the way their neighbours' niece, a wishful actress named Nina, shinnies on by and befriends "Uncle Vanya". Masha feels threatened by this newby. But they're all invited to a costume party up the road. At Masha's insistence she leads the troupe dressed as Disney's Snow White. The rest are decked out as others from that movie. The second act starts after they return and must face whatever "new world order" stares at them the morning after.

Script's punchy one-liners amuse heartily : From the get-go Durang's script magnetizes viewers. Swiping one-liners from various Chekhov scripts such as The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and Three Sisters, Sonia (Susinn McFarlen) has the best bits. When Vanya (Jay Brazeau) snipes that his coffee's coolish this morning, Sonia fires away : "I have two pleasant moments in my life and one of them is bringing you fucking coffee!", seconds before she smashes his cup on the floor. "I'm in mourning for my life!" she moans. When Vanya scolds her she responds sullenly : "That was just my 'I hate my life and I hate you!' response. It's a reflex."

Enter their weekly housekeeper Cassandra (Carmen Aguirre) who talks of her "curse", to see shadows, warning darkly of one Hootie Pie about to disturb their familiar habits. "I see calamity lurking up the driveway -- oh, magical mystery tour!" she predicts.

Masha (Anna Galvin) descends with Spike (Robert Salvador), and the zingers fly fast and furious. She greets them with her easy sisterly sarcasm "You both look the same, older, sadder, but the same." Sonia complains how Masha has always outshone her and Masha doesn't miss a beat : "You often outshine me -- when I'm not here you outshine me!" Sonia tells her "My only relationship with men is at the check-out when they say 'Here's your change, sweetheart.'" Part neo-Chekhov, part Woody Allen, part Neil Simon, Durang's snappy dialogue (and a couple of well-hewn monologues) propel the action forward in choice lurches and burps right through to the end.

Acting moments aplenty here : VSMS was directed tightly and cleverly by Rachel Ditor. Her staging of the cast had the Stanley crowd rollicking and giggling galore on opening night. 

As Sonia, McFarlen displayed marvelous reach and grasp of comic timing in bemoaning her fate : "I'm a wild turkey!" she declares repeatedly in reference (from Three Sisters) to turkeys that regularly fall out of trees and die. As noted, Durang's best scriptwork is hers to utter. McFarlen nails, almost breathtakingly, a monologue at the end where a would-be suitor from the costume party, Joe, calls her Evil Queen / Maggie Smith out-take "glamorous". "You're calling me because you like me? How odd," Sonia says to the unseen, unheard Joe with pure touching surprise and not a wit of irony.

Loudest applause at curtain was reserved for Carmen Aguirre's Cassandra. Her sustained self-trances commenced with the word "Ohhhh!" bletched forth gutterally for 45 seconds each time, the sound somewhere between a gag reflex and a death moan. Coupled with her flip snips of sarchasm -- the abyss between who utters sarcasm and the recipients who don't get it [Urban Dictionary] --which were prime. When she enters Act 2 with her voodoo rattle and doll to torment Masha (and dissuade her from selling the farm), Aguirre was Gilda Radner unplugged.

Jay Brazeau made the perfect choice to play "Uncle Vanya". Portly, kindly, wisely he acts as foil for both Sonia and Masha with understated comic turns. His sustained monologue at play's end -- arguably Durang's "purpose" in writing the piece, to whinge and kvetch at the Millennials' life of cyber-playthings and virtual reality -vs- Boomer memories of Old Yeller and the Mickey Mouse Club and Howdy Doody on t.v. plus hand-written letters in a time when people licked stamps, not peeled them -- Brazeau's sustained verbal blitz at Spike earned spontaneous mid-scene applause.

As Masha, Anna Galvin gave her part every centimetre of irony Durang intended to depict a narcissist on a downward arc straight from her history of B-movie sex flix in Hollywood. Mr. Salvador's "reverse strip tease" as Spike -- putting his clothes back on after strutting about in his blue gaunch much of the night -- was show-stealing hilarity, as was his air guitar exit stage left. Pure unmitigated male ditz. Between the two of them one could not help but conjure Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher in their horny phase. Katey Hoffman as the star-struck wannabe actor was all charm and innocence.

Production values aid & abet : Veteran set designer Alison Green produced perhaps the most convincing and realistic and all-embracing set I have witnessed in three seasons at the Stanley, and there have been many of excellence. The cutaway Pennsylvania farmhouse with exposed rafters and dormers and faux riverstone pony walls and chimney plus rattan settees was unimprovable. As lit by Adrian Muir, the set utterly engaged the eye. Sheila White's costumes were perfect : Vanya and Sonia in their frumpy morning bedclothes could not have been more telling of their comfy familiarity together.

Who gonna like : This is manic mainstage comic fare that Vancouver audiences will surely line up to see. Sonia and Vanya's wailing arias about lost life, lost opportunity, lost identity were delivered with rich comic edge. While Durang's script was overly long-ish and had, oh, maybe three-too-many references to Ozzie & Harriet as that halcyon time in their childhoods, fact is the Ditor production aims for laughs, shoots smartly and accurately, and kills no innocent bystanders along the way. The crowd opening night ranged from age 10 to 85, and there wasn't a downturned mouth to be seen at the exit doors.

Particulars :  Written by Christopher Durang.  67th Tonys Best Play award in 2013, same kudos as well from the Drama Critics' Circle. From March 19-April 19 at the Stanley Theatre on South Granville. Run-time 2 1/2 hours with intermission. Schedules and tickets via or telephone 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director Rachel Ditor.  Set Designer Alison Green.  Costume Designer Sheila White.  Lighting Designer Adrian Muir.  Sound Designer Murray Price.  Stage Manager Allison Spearing.  Assistant Stage Managers Ronaye Haynes, Peter Jotkus.

Performers :  Carmen Aguirre.  Jay Brazeau.  Anna Galvin.  Katey Hoffman.  Susinn McFarlen.  Robert Salvador.


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