Review: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

by Lynn on March 25, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Panasonic Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Christopher Durang
Directed by Dean Paul Gibson
Set and Costumes by Sue LePage
Sound by Peter Boyle
Starring: Jennifer Dale
Ellen Denny
Audrey Dwyer
Luke Humphrey
Fiona Reid
Steven Sutcliffe

Christopher Durang’s affectionate mash-up of Chekhov, done with style and humour by a talented cast.

The Story. For years Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia looked after their aged parents. Their much married, movie star sister paid all the bills while she flitted around the world making second rate movies. It was her contribution since she was never home to care for the parents. Now, the parents are long dead and Vanya and Sonia still live in the family home, tending it while Masha is away. They don’t know how to do anything else.

Vanya is a middle aged, mild-mannered, philosophical man who is not coping with the new technology or modern attitudes. He longs for the good old days when you licked stamps to put on an envelope you hand-addressed, into which you put a letter that you wrote on paper with a pen.

Sonia is about the same age. A spinster. A more feminist word would not be apt for Sonia. She dotes on her brother and probably finds him to be a perfect partner, and since they are adopted she finds nothing wrong with that attitude. Vanya, always a proper gentleman, is not as accommodating and besides he tells her gently, she doesn’t attract him in that way.

One day Masha returns home in a blaze of melodramatic poses with her boy-toy Spike in tow. He’s a wanna be actor. A buff stud. Cheerful but dim. Perfect for Masha. Vanya is a bit smitten with Spike as well. Nina is the young woman next door. She reveres Masha and wants to be an actress. Spike meets her while he’s swimming in his undies on the property. He brings her up to the house to meet everybody. Finally there is Cassandra, the future-telling housekeeper. She bursts into prophecy when she’s not complaining about having to make lunch for everybody.

There is a costumes party to which they all go. It changes the life of one of them. Masha gives her siblings startling news that changes their lives as well. Chekhov country with a Christopher Durang twist.

The Production. Designer Sue LePage has created a comfortable, well-lived-in home. It’s not modern, but it’s not shabby. You get the sense that the furniture and everything in it has been the same for decades. It’s well taken care of. Vanya and Sonia have spent their time over the years waiting for the blue heron to appear in the morning mist, like an old friend. Theirs is a life of routine. She brings his morning coffee. They savour each sip. They look out at the water in the distance and wait for the blue heron. And then everything is disrupted when Masha blows in from wherever with Spike.

Director Dean Paul Gibson’s direction brings the understated world of Chekhov and the more off-the-wall world of Durang into wonderful balance in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Steven Sutcliffe is quiet and courtly as Vanya. He watches almost everything with a benign acceptance. He has patience for his high-strung sister Sonia; a heightened interest in Spike with a twinge of embarrassment that he should feel that way; a sense of capitulation when dealing with the over-bearing Masha; and finally an explosive release of frustration and anger when the modern world rears its ugly head. Vanya is lamenting the loss of the ‘good old days’ when he sees that Spike is bored and is tweeting. At that point Vanya lets loose with the best speech of the play if not one of the best speeches of the 21st century, not to put too fine a point to it. It’s a speech that goes on for pages about what we have lost of ourselves, humanity, compassion and other things we held dear. As Vanya, Steven Sutcliffe delivers that speech from the heart and soul of a wounded character. It’s phrased and parsed with delicacy, nuance, anger, frustration, and a power we have not seen from this character. And the way Sutcliffe says it is wonderfully moving.

Fiona Reid as Sonia, brings out the heart and angst of a woman who thinks life has passed her by. It’s a life without event. When Vanya gets his own coffee instead of waiting for Sonia as usual, it is the end of the world for her, and she isn’t being overly-dramatic. She dreads Masha’s visit because she feels even more inadequate in her sister’s presence. Masha never lets an opportunity pass without giving a shot to her sister; how mousy she looks, how needy, how hard she (Masha) works. And when Sonia fights back it’s with conviction, bravery and a giddy sense of being empowered. When Sonia assumes the persona of Maggie Smith in a certain film she is formidable. The impersonation is a bit over the top, but that’s what you would expect of Sonia.

Jennifer Dale plays Masha as a glittery movie star past her prime, but still with confident flair. Masha is both imperious and needy. Luke Humphrey plays Spike as a self-absorbed but buoyant bubble head. He knows his affect on people, especially when he’s stripped to his briefs and gyrating his pelvis, but he still has a kind of appealing charm. As Nina, Ellen Denny has the difficult task of not making Nina seem silly or frivolous. Nina is young, innocent and obviously admires Masha tremendously. Denny brings out the sweetness and gentleness in Nina. And finally Audrey Dwyer plays Cassandra with a fearless boldness. When she is looking into the future, “Beware Hooty-Pie!” Cassandra is serious and relentless. To us she’s hilarious. In Sue LePage’s costumes, Cassandra is an explosion of colour and pattern combinations. You don’t mess with this seer of the future.

Comment. Playwright Christopher Durang has let his considerable imagination run free and has done up a mash-up of several Chekhov characters from different plays all meeting in this one. Vanya and Sonia of course are from Uncle Vanya. Masha references The Seagull and Three Sisters. Indeed Sonia bursts out occasionally with “I am a wild turkey. I am a wild turkey,” which echoes Nina in The Seagull saying “I am a seagull.”

Do you need to know Chekhov to appreciate Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike? No. But it does add another degree of enjoyment, but Durang’s writing is so inventive within the framework of Chekhov that taken on its own it’s very funny. This cast does it proud.

Co-produced by Mirvish Productions and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

Run: March 14 to April 5, 2015
Cast: 6; 2 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours.

Leave a Comment