Monday, August 31, 2015

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Playwright:  Christopher Durang

Running Time:  2 hours, 30 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission) 

Date of Performance:  Sunday, August 30, 2015.

For those who may have missed the reference, the characters in the title Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (hereafter VSMS) are throwbacks to plays written by Anton Chekov in the late 19th century.  That is, the first three title characters.  Spike is playwright Christopher Durang’s creation and comedic upgrade to Chekov’s somewhat dark and depressing themes.

Chekov is an acquired taste, and one (along with broccoli) that I have yet to fully acquire.  His moody work (including the play Uncle Vanya, from which VSMS takes considerable inspiration) centers on the meaningless lives of the leisure class, materialistic values, and self denial.  His plays border on the absurd, using characters who seek meaning in a situation that seems meaningless.  Although he was not always identified with it, his work is thematically related to the 20th century existentialist movement. 

From this laugh free zone, Durang has fashioned a comedy of the absurd.  Vanya (Stephen Maestas) and Sonia (Caitlin Conklin) are brother and sister (she by adoption) who have long cared for their invalid but now deceased parents.  Having devoted most of their lives to caring for ailing “professor” parents, both are utterly unprepared for the real world.  Indeed, their lives have been wasted caring for others.  Their actress/celebrity sister Masha (Jennifer Bass) has become very successful after leaving Vanya and Sonia behind as caregivers.  Now that her career is sunsetting, she must sell the family home to pay the bills.  In the process, she must evict her siblings from the home they grew up in.  

What Durang has done is impressive; VSMS got a Tony Award for Best Play and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play in 2013.  David Hyde Pierce and Sigorney Weaver appeared in the Broadway cast.  There is no shortage of praise for those productions, and for Durang’s script.  The Firehouse production makes it clear that neither Durang nor Chekov is a flash in the pan.  Chekov was one of the leading writers of his time, and Durang has the justified confidence to believe he can improve on the original. Somehow I picture Durang on his 5th martini as the bar is closing at 2:00 AM, and someone dares him to improve on Chekov.  If there was such a dare, VSMS was surely the result.  

It's fair to say that Durang has made the Chekov work more accessible (and more fun) by painting the characters more as clowns than philosophers.   Vanya is the sad sack clown (Buster Keaton and Emmett Kelly come to mind).  Masha is the Lucille Ball of the family.  Sonia is a mix of Ellen DeGeneres and Joan Rivers.  Spike (Keegan O’Brien) is a sexy blend of Chris Rock and George Clooney.  Cassandra (Lisa Young) goes all Whoopi Goldberg on Masha.  Where Chekov was somber and pensive, Durang is bold and funny.

Durang liberally sprinkles the Chekov references throughout his script, including a cherry orchard (The Cherry Orchard), a play within a play (The Seagull), and of course the title characters (Uncle Vanya).  Doing so is clever, but perhaps too clever by half.  Those who are unfamiliar with Chekov’s plays will hardly appreciate the references.  Those who are familiar with Chekov may worry that Durang’s script diminishes the original work through subtle exploitation.  It’s a legitimate concern.   Rather than a subtle exploitation, however, I prefer to see VSMS as an updated adaption of the Chekov’s work.  It’s more engaging, more accessible, and definitely funnier than Chekov’s original, and Durang adds an upbeat ending that would probably make Chekov wince.  

With that as background, you may be wondering, “so what did you think of the show?”  And, as you may have guessed, it’s a bit of a mixed experience.  

First, I think it’s decidedly helpful to know something of Chekov’s original works.  Perhaps not a requirement, but a very helpful “plus.”

Second, Chekov challenged audiences with both his subject matter and style.  Durang’s style (contemporary setting with lots of laughter) improves the experience for the audience.  Still, Durang’s work is nearly as challenging as Chekov’s.

Third, the cast is very good, but somewhat uneven.  Caitlin Conklin is electric as the sometimes low key and sometimes hostile, prop smashing Sonia.  She goes from weepy to angry in a heartbeat.  Conklin puts in an emotional performance that is, at times, stunning.  She beams as she preens after upstaging Masha at a party; for the audience, Conklin is delivering a much needed dose of humility to Masha.  Think professional bad guy wrestler body slammed by the good guy.
Keegan O'Brien (Spike)

Lisa Young (Cassandra)
Lisa Young’s Cassandra is a colorful contrast to her self absorbed cast mates, bringing us voodoo and common sense in equal measures.  Jennifer Bass is sassy and sexy, as Masha with her boy toy Spike in tow.  Keegan O’Brien plays Spike for all the laughs possible, letting his libido run wild with his unbelievably limber and sculpted physique.  (Note to the ladies…no, on second thought, to the ladies and gentlemen:  Keegan is delicious eye candy.  I don’t think he will mind if you leer while laughing.  I did.)  Mollie Horne (Nina) is the picture of naiveté, swooning over Masha’s very presence.

It is Vanya, though, who is central to the title and the plot, and Stephen Maestas delivers an uneven rendering of his character.  It’s a quibble, but his monologue in the second act is masterful (“WE HAD TO LICK POSTAGE STAMPS!”), whereas at other times his timing seemed off and his delivery tentative.  If his entire performance were as complete, as convincing, and as powerful as his monologue, Maestas would unquestionably be the star of VSMS.
Caitlin Conklin (Sonia), Stephen Maestas (Vanya), Jennifer Bass (Snow White/Masha).

Director Steve Tangedal keeps the laughs coming with outrageous costumes by Deborah Montgomery and Kris Paddock (Snow White is marvelous, as is Spike in bun hugging tights), gymnastic feats rarely seen on any stage, and precision timing of offstage screams with onstage voodoo.  Tangedal’s touch is particularly evident as Masha discovers that Spike has taken an interest in Nina.  Despite Masha’s abundance of self esteem, Tangedal lets us see her softer side as she starts to realize that her dream is over.

VSMS will keep you laughing.  Keegan O’Brien’s gymnastics will be forever burned into your memory bank.  You may be inspired to read Chekov’s Uncle Vanya to get a handle on the history.  All of which is to say that despite my quibble with one performance, Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike is a rollicking revision of Chekov’s legacy.  If you’re a Chekov fan, VSMS is a no brainer.  Get a ticket.  If you’re not a Chekov fan, you will almost certainly prefer Durang’s generous glimmer of hope for the hapless characters who have escaped from Uncle Vanya.  

Here Comes the Sun.”  And it’s shining for both of you, Vanya and Sonia.  
CAST (l-r):  Keegan O'Brien, Lisa Young, Mollie Horne, Jennifer Bass, Stephen Maestas, Caitlin Conklin.


There is ample free parking behind the theater, and on surrounding streets.  

There are adult themes and adult language in VSMS.  Discretion is advised for children under 15. 

This show closes on September 26, 2015.

PHOTO CREDITSFirehouse Theater Company/Meghan Ralph of Soular Radiant Photography.



Steak Teriyaki with brown rice.

There are a number of restaurants nearby in the Lowry Town Center.  We've eaten several, including Salty Rita's and Serioz Pizza.  As we didn't have much time before the 2:00 matinee, we stopped at Pei Wei, also in the Lowry Town Center.  

I'm probably the last one to be giving advice on Chinese cuisine, but Pei Wei is freshly prepared to order after you order it.  I had the steak teriyaki on brown rice, and it was delicious.  Roxie had the shrimp, which while tasty, only had 5 shrimp.  Two meals, two drinks, and a tab of just over $19.00 made for a quick, delicious lunch before the show.  Also recommended in the Lowry Town Center:  The Tavern.


Director:  Steve Tangedal

Assistant Director/Stage Manager:  Andrew KC Nicholas

Lighting & Sound Design: T. Marc Stevens

Set Design:  Jeffrey Jesmer

Production Coordinators/Costumes:  Deborah Montgomery & Kris Paddock


Vanya:  Stephen Maestas

Sonia:  Caitlin Conklin

Masha:  Jennifer Bass

Cassandra:  Lisa Young

Spike:  Keegan O’Brien

Nina:  Mollie Horne

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