Thursday, November 24, 2016

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang

L - R Nate Golon, Christine Dunford, Brian Drillinger, Michelle Danner, Remy Nozik, Tamika Katon-Donegal - Photos by Teferi Seifu

By Joe Straw

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang was my first Broadway show.  I had orchestra seats and was three rows back from the stage (see review on this blog).  It was a wonderful New York scene, a wonderful evening, and a wonderful play.  Months later, another version played in downtown Los Angeles directed by David Hyde Pierce.  I did not see it, so when the chance came to see it at a smaller theatre, The Edgemar Center for the Arts, I jumped at the chance. - Narrator

I usually don’t speak of the second act but Michelle Danner’s performance (Sonia) was breathtaking, so much so that I will remember the moment, forever, with indifference to the passing of time.  She stood silently, listening, accepting what was to come, alone in a room, the phone moving from one position of her body to the next. She spoke, now quiet, heeding, and projected a moment in theatre that plays upon an emotion so deep that it hurt, and brought joy, and carried forth unimaginable happiness, all in one unforgettable warm memory.  It is that dramatic moment when one wants to rise, vigorously applause, and say, “That’s what I’m talking about!” But for now, it’s about an absorbed moment, and one that I will remember the rest of my life, for the rest of my life!

Edgemar Center for the Arts presents Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, The Tony Award winning play written by Christopher Durang, directed by Barbara Tarbuck, and produced by Alexandra Guarrnieri is playing through December 11, 2016. (but dark on Thanksgiving weekend)

The play opens on Edvard Grieg’s – Peer Gynt – Suite No.1, Op. 46.1, and music for the morning, in a sitting area of a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Vanya (Brian Drillinger), in his pajamas, finds his chair, sits gingerly with a perfect hot cup of coffee, and waits for the blue heron to come to the pond nearby.

Sonia (Michelle Danner) saunters from the kitchen with a coffee cup and a diet soda.

“I brought you coffee, dearest Vanya.” – Sonia

“I have some.” – Vanya

Sonia sees the cup in his hand, glares, and appears perturbed, which might be an understatement, given the proclivity of her mental state.

Vanya and Sonia have been living together for quite some time.  They are in their 50’s and are accustomed to each other’s wants and needs. Despite their somber and un-miraculous morning, trouble brews, slightly, beneath the surface of the steaming cup.

“Oh.  But I bring you coffee every morning.” – Sonia

“Well, yes, but you weren’t available.” – Vanya

Chekhovian is a term used for a Chekhov character in a mood of introspection and frustration and that is clearly evident here in this house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, especially in this household, and in particular where coffee is concerned.  There is a dramatic weight to their inner feelings, unconsciously, each knowing where the other might be heading.

Sonia insists that Vanya take the coffee she has made especially for him.  But, before things get out of control, the docile Vanya accepts the coffee and life continues. For the moment, there is tranquility.

“Has the blue heron been at the pond yet this morning?” – Sonia

It takes just one sip of the coffee for Vanya to realize the cup he gave up tasted better, which he voices.  Well, that should not have been said – it makes Sonia feel bad, useless, and slightly pathetic all in one Chekhovian fell swoop.  

“I mean I have two pleasant moments every day in my f**king life, and one of them is bringing you coffee.” – Sonia  

Sonia then takes the non-preferred cup of coffee and smashes it somewhere near the kitchen (on this night, it doesn’t break and Sonia gives it another go) smashing it into unseen tiny pieces; she returns moments later to share the reason for breaking the cup, is that she hates her life and she hates him.

For now, Sonia has nothing, no one, so, and as a last resort she directs her attention to Vanya. She pines for Vanya. No luck again as Vanya marches to a different drummer. Besides, Sonia is related. She is the adopted sister, and has been with the family since the age of eight.   

As the moments tick away, Vanya’s coffee becomes cold again.  Politely, Sonia offers to heat it in the microwave, and with a delicate passion, and nimble feet she takes it. 

Vanya waits for the curiously inevitable as Sonia smashes that cup against the floor.

Neither one will volunteer to clean it up. They leave it for the maid, Cassandra (Tamika Katon-Donegal), who will join them later, bringing with her visions of doom and broken coffee cups.

“Beware of Hootie Pie.” – Cassandra

Cassandra tells Vanya and Sonia that her psychic powers connect Hootie Pie to them!  They will lose the house, become homeless, and they will eventually walk themselves to the poor house.

“Surely someone will give us a ride.” – Sonia

“No, you will walk.” - Cassandra

Moments later. Sonia says that Masha is coming to visit and no sooner does she say it, than Masha (Christine Dunford) and her oversexed 27-year-old boyfriend, Spike (Nate Golon), aka Vlad, arrive for a visit.

“Sweetest Vanya, dearest Sonia.  How I’ve missed you.  You both look the same. Older. Sadder. But the same.  It’s wonderful to see you, Vanya. Oh, and you too, Sonia.” – Masha

Spike ingratiates himself to the family, smothers Masha with kisses, throws off his clothes, and runs to the pond for a swim. There, he meets Nina (Remy Nozik), a lovely would-be actress, whom he invites back to the house to meet a real-life movie star.  

Barabara Tarbuck, the director, has put together a pretty amazing cast.  Each actor has moments to shine, but really, shine is an understatement, as each actor contributes mightily to a terrific night of entertainment.  Lost Chekhovian characters in search an unattainable goal.

For the record though, the first few moments of the opening scene were off in the way that Sonia and Vanya connect and establish a relationship.  And it is a relationship that fits with being a Chekhovian family; Sonya is discontent, upset, and regretful while Vanya is resigned to his lonely way of life.  It is here, in these first few moments, that one needs to see the actors connect, the relationships established, and the fury in their offbeat sense of self-pity pay off dramatically.  There is no need to rush this scene, establishing a relationship will give us a deeper connection between the characters and a stronger sense of self and place.  

Also, Vanya needs to be in a nightshirt which projects femininity, or someone who spends his time in bed with little or nothing to do, whereas pajamas give a masculine impression or of someone who has been ill for quite some time.  (Also, Durang writes that Vanya should be in a nightshirt.)

Brian Drillinger is Vanya, and is very exited about the birth of his new play. In fact, that is the only thing that excites him, well almost.  But most of the time, Vanya is a desultory character, both wry in wit and confused in purpose.  He has not had the enthusiasm to get what he wants from life.  He is content with doing little or nothing and living with his sister as long as it doesn’t cost him anything. Seeing the blue heron is the highlight of his day.  Warding off his sister and her advances is either an annoyance to him or an assault charge in some states. But what does he want aside from living in his nightshirt? He is a budding playwright and maybe he wants his words to save the world, if he only knew how to get started. Drillinger has his moments but needs something extra to complete the character – an additional mannerism or another vocal inflection – all in keeping with his objective. The monologue at the end has a purpose, trying to get your message across, and connecting to make everyone’s life better. Drillinger has a lot of fun and is a pleasure to watch.

Michelle Danner is remarkable as Sonia, a character that stepped out of a Chekov play. Sonia’s backstory is clear – she has sacrificed her life to take care of her adoptive parents.  Now, she has nothing to show for it, not even the house.  She needs her one true love before all is said and done. Without realizing it, she moves in that direction. But she is saddled with the mental problems of being bi-polar and having a self-diagnosed incipient dementia. She spends her days making references to Chekov about there being no life.   Still, there is something very lovable about this woman whose father once called her his little artichoke.

Christine Dunford

Christine Dunford is brilliant as the aging movie star, Masha, who sends zingers to her siblings and anyone within earshot.  She is highly aware of her own self-importance despite the slasher movie roles that have now becoming infrequent.  Forced film retirement due to age, Masha dreams of turning her attention to performing on the stage.   Masha brings bad news of selling the house and throwing her siblings into the street.  She fails to think about her siblings and what their lives would be like without the home. Five marriages later, she is onto her boy toy and not really finding happiness.  Finding the one thing that makes her completely happy is the reason she makes the decision at the end.  Dunford is a brilliant actor who creates an astonishing physical and comedic life on stage.  

Nate Golon

Nate Golon is superior as Spike, a man in his physical prime, if not an emotional one.  He is happy to be the boy-toy not only with his girlfriend but also with anyone that may cross his physical unclothed path, which included everyone in or around this household, male or female, gay or straight, as long as they notice, him. Spike is an actor who has not gotten past the audition stage but hopes that one day, one day, he will reach his mercurial destiny. This is a wonderful role for Golon and he fills the bill marvelously.  

Remy Nozik has an incredible presence on stage as Nina. She glides effortlessly from one moment to the next and is extraordinary in the way she handles adult conflict in her character’s youthful inexperienced life. Nozik has a very enchanting look suitable for film.

Tamika Katon-Donegal is very pleasant as Cassandra, a woman who has voodoo at her fingertips and the ability to tell the future while missing only some of the details, if anyone would listen. But Cassandra has a pretty good batting average with her predictions. Katon-Donegal has a very nice look on stage and manages to strike into the heart of the character.  One believes Katon-Donegal can take Cassandra to another extreme in character and costume and still gets what she wants which I believe is her job.

Christopher Durang, the writer, hit all the marks here and brings forth all of his knowledge of actors, writers, stars, and Chekhov in a wonderful night of entertainment.  The Sonia monologue plays to perfection; while I have seen Vanya’s scene at the end, I have yet to figure out what it is about, or what it accomplishes.  Can a character go completely Chekhovian and get what he wants?

Alessandra Manias the Production Designer has created a wonderful set, a pre-revolutionary style home with semi-modern accouterments, for which the actors can create their magic.  There is a bench upstage center that is very peculiar and not used.  One supposes it is an outside courtyard.

Other members of the crew who contributed mightily are as follows:

Carly Llewelyn-Ryan – Production Stage Manager
Anna Zak – Directors Assistant
Gianluca Zago – Production Design Assistant
Larae Mychel – Costume Designer
Kyle McAnally – Lighting Designer
DJ Medina – Sound Designer
Rob Riley – Associate Producer and Graphic Designer
Josephine Hies – Associate Producer

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone who loves Stanislavsky and his ideas that Chekhov wrote delightful comedies.



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