Review: ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ at Castaways Repertory Theatre

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Blue Herons and Other Good Omens Come to Roost in the Castaways Repertory Theatre’s Current Comic Delight

If you aren’t familiar with Christopher Durang’s popular comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, don’t fear. The Castaways Repertory Theatre’s production, directed by Director Terri Caretti, has you covered. When I first walked into the theatre at Dr. A.J. Ferlazzo Building, I was immediately greeted by Mark Young’s set design, a charming image of a country home lost to time. Wood paneling and wicker living room furniture evoke a feeling that this home has stood almost untouched since the early 1950s, it’s only modern convenience being a simple silver cordless phone, almost hidden on an end table in the back. It is a comfortable and easy to lounge in, as evidenced in the first scene when Sonia (Emily Canavan) brings her older brother Vanya (Eric Trumbull) a cup of coffee, despite him already having taken a cup for himself, and the two discuss the tedium and stresses of their lives with the feeling of casual repetition. They muse on the absence of a blue heron from the pond out back, an omen that not all might be well in their cozy, if boring, lives.

They are soon joined by their housekeeper, Cassandra (Nora Zanger), who like her tragic Greek namesake confirms the heron’s omen with dire and comically affected prophecies of chaos and doom. Sure enough, the household calm is soon shattered by the arrival of Masha (Suzie Marie Flynn), the third sibling and her new, fresh-faced, boy toy Spike (Alexander Gordon). Masha, an aging film star, has bankrolled her brother and sister in the family home for decades, and has now returned to “visit,” attend an upscale social function nearby, and to tell her siblings that she is selling their home.

The cast. Photo courtesy of Castaways Repertory Theatre.

It may sound more like one of the often referenced plays by Anton Chekhov than a topically modern comedy at this point, but trust me there are liberal laughs throughout the play. If Sonia’s self-pity, Vanya’s good-natured anachronism, Masha’s diva attitude, or Cassandra’s flailing predictions aren’t enough, the home becomes even more crowded and tense when underwear only clad Spike draws in Nina (Gillian Hersh), an aspiring young actress and Masha super-fan. Antics ensue, and each character is forced to deal with his or her place in world and their own self-worth. I don’t want to give away too much, but the show features several oddities including Disney-inspired party costumes, a voodoo doll, and a modernist monologue as delivered by a molecule.

The play takes place in six scenes across two acts, and the pacing of the show is brisk, ensuring that the audience is never without a laugh or considering thought.

Emily Canavan’s Sonia is a torrent of emotion running from mopey, to fiery tempered, to bitingly sarcastic and beyond at a moment’s notice. She embodies the middle child syndrome so perfectly that it is easy to forget that Sonia is essentially the play’s “straight man” character. Despite Sonia’s claims that she is as “memorable as the furniture” Canavan definitely knows when and how capture the audience’s attention. This is embodied no better than in a scene where Flynn’s Masha is aghast at being upstaged by Canavan’s suddenly bold impersonation of Dame Maggie Smith. And while the audience should care about the ultimate fate of each of the three siblings, I couldn’t help but root for Sonia to pull ahead by the end of the play.

In rooting for Sonia, however, you can’t forget Vanya, an introverted and closeted gay man who longs for the days when we used to lick stamps to place on hand-written letters. Eric Trumbull plays the mild and anxious Vanya to a tee, always there to gently step between his sisters when tensions get too heated. Trumbull’s performance is wonderfully genuine, so much so that during an uncharacteristic outburst from Vanya, I found myself honestly concerned at his mounting distress. His interactions with his castmates range from heartwarming to hilarious in a performance that really gives his character an air of authenticity.

And if we are speaking of authenticity, we can’t ignore Masha, who by virtue of being a famous actress is sort of a foil for both Sonia and Vanya. Suzie Marie Flynn does a masterful job with one of the play’s most meta characters. Flynn plays the starlet as we’ve been conditioned to expect someone of her popularity to act: brash, self-centric, and desperate for all eyes to be focused on her. And yet, Flynn doesn’t just leave Masha with that single dimension. She easily shifts gears to vent her frustration at being the sole provider for her family, peppering her dialogue with true worry over not making as much money as she used to and angst over her rocky romantic life. Flynn’s portrayal ably demonstrates that beneath the Hollywood glitz lays a real and sincere person.

Her counterpart, Spike, is not so lucky. If Masha shows us the depths of the actor as a person, Spike is all surface. Alexander Gordon’s Spike unabashedly flaunts everything that is seen as being “wrong” with modern social media and the Millennial Generation. Gordon leaves modesty at the door as he struts, preens and poses, often in some state of undress. When he isn’t speaking or being spoken to, he is often mugging or stretching athletically in the background, foreground, or to the side of the main action. His devotion to the character allows him to take action that makes him a bit distracting at times, but painfully hilarious at the same time. Gordon’s performance shines a light on the vanity of much of today’s youth and the culture in which they are being raised.

Every coin has two sides; however, and Gillian Hersh’s Nina is a wonderful complement to Gordon’s Spike. Hersh’s energy screams, “Youthful excitement!” and it is no wonder, given that she is currently finishing up her studies at Robinson Secondary School and looking ahead to starting college this fall. In some ways, Hersh plays to some part of each other character in the play which endears her not only to the other characters, but to the audience as well. You can honestly feel the spark of life in the way she gazes outward as Nina foreseeing how grand and exciting her future will be.

Speaking of foresight, it is impossible to describe the comedy of this show without mentioning Nora Zanger and her role as Cassandra. Zanger is a riot as the crazy cleaning lady. Her physicality gets turned up to 11 with every prediction her character has, making it legitimately believable that the other characters dismiss her prophecies until it is too late. One part clown, one part wise fool, Zanger’s Cassandra fits right in with the show’s early sitcom feeling, as if she is the comic neighbor who arrives just when she’s needed to help the others along.

The Castaway Repertory Theatre’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, is a delightful night of comedy. While the play liberally references Chekhov’s plays, you don’t have to have ever seen or read one to grasp how this show takes those references and holds up the human experience to the modern day mirror. The show is well paced; at times calling to mind vaudevillian back-and-forth joking or paying homage to classical television shows like I Love Lucy.

The show’s Prop Mistress, Kathi Tyrrell made excellent use of simple and common place items that fit in perfectly with Set Designer Mark Young’s timeless design; though she must have amazing patience to deal with all those shattered tea cups. Jill Jago’s costumes really brought out that little extra in each character be it Sonia’s beautiful black ball gown that had me cheering inside or Nina’s avant-garde bodysuit and inflated balloons that had me struggling to contain my laughter.

Jan Dylewski’s simple lighting scheme kept the set feeling warm and homey. Finally, Mark Bennett’s Sound Design and Original Music rounded out the performance with natural sound effects for birds and cars, and scene transitions that evoked early sitcom transitions flavored with a Russian-esque flavor that would seeming have fit will amid all the Chekhov references.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays through February 12, 2017, at The Castaways Repertory Theatre performing at Dr. A.J. Ferlazzo Building – 15941 Donald Curtis Drive, in Woodbridge, VA. For tickets, call (703) 232-1710, or reserve them through the box office, or purchase them online.

A Note: While the performance I saw featured Emily Canavan as Sonia, this production splits the role between her and Ellen Hart McKinstrie.

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