‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ at CENTERSTAGE

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Quickly becoming a household name when it comes to quirky comedies, Christopher Durang’s latest Tony Award-Winning play hits CENTERSTAGE as they approach the end of their 2013/2014 season. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike makes its area debut upstairs in The Head Theater. Directed by Eric Rosen, the production provides a cynically comic look at the twilight years of life and how there can still be a little fun left in the most dysfunctional of families.

 (l to r) Sonia (Barbara Walsh) Masha (Susan Rome) and Vanya , and (Bruce Randolph Nelson). Photo by Richard Anderson.
(l to r) Sonia (Barbara Walsh) Masha (Susan Rome) and Vanya , and (Bruce Randolph Nelson). Photo by Richard Anderson.

Structurally and aesthetically stunning, the enormous house of the Chekhovian siblings— so named by their scholarly parents— is a visual masterpiece sprung forth from the creative brilliance of Scenic Designer Donald Eastman. Possessing an Arcadian quality; the house’s grandeur in itself becomes a silent character; Appearing as the most striking and realistic set of the season, Eastman’s design allows for a sense of easily disturbed tranquility to surface.  The homey touches of the decorations juxtaposed against the sprawling enormity of the set itself mirrors the timid personalities of the two siblings in residence against their younger sister’s gargantuan persona.

Director Eric Rosen heightens the melodramatic moments that are often the signature hallmark of various and sundry Durang productions. Aiming for over-the-top performances from supporting characters like Cassandra, and achieving them with great success, Rosen fully fleshes out the comic potential of the show. Honing in more sharply on the serious moments, Rosen— aided by Lighting Designer Victor En Yu Tan— culminates a fluid balance between the comedy and the drama in this show. Utilizing a plethora of emotional shifts, Rosen keeps the tensions between characters present while simultaneously keeping the momentum rolling at a lively pace, even during more serene and reflective scenes.

The relationships crafted between the six characters on stage are uniquely authentic. Bubbling with an ever-present effervescence, the dynamic of said relationships is perpetually churning; continual emotional motion that ebbs and flows, spikes and drops all throughout the performance. There are moments of sheer comic delight that crash against harrowing emotional vulnerability and everything imaginable in-between.

Nina (Emily Peterson), as yet another Chekhovian character reference, is a mild representation of the proverbial fly in the ointment. With a sweet disposition, Peterson’s character becomes an inadvertent irritant to Masha while simply trying to revel in her awestruck glory of meeting the ‘famous’ actress. Peterson plays the character simplistically on the surface for the majority of the show until she engages at a slightly more dramatic depth during her meta-performance as a molecule.

Hunky, handsome, and downright hot, Spike (Zachary Andrews) is the epitome of a jock of the new-wave ‘ot’ generation. Andrews gives an incredible performance by balancing his strapping eye-candy physique against his witless persona. Like all good actors, Andrews’ character craves attention from whoever will give it to him. The subtle flirtations with Vanya, and his more disgustingly obvious public displays of affection with Masha make him both laughable and loveable right up until the dramatic moment where he gives us cause to despise him. A well-rounded performance, Andrews is easy on the eyes and the mind.

Cassandra (Kerry Warren) announces her arrival to the house with a melodramatic flare. Existing in a larger than life format for the duration of the production, Warren augments the insane situation of her character’s namesake with prophetic attempts for anyone who will listen. It’s Warren’s hyper-active physical expression that keeps the audience tickled with her outbursts; the way her body responds as if she were truly possessed by some all-knowing spirit creating moments of brilliant hilarity. Facing off with a firecracker attitude, Warren’s character holds her own against the egomaniacal Masha, the simpering Sonia, and the irenic Vanya. Warren becomes a scene stealer at various moments throughout the production, but none quite so strong as during her final morning arrival to the house with her voodoo stick and doll.

The dysfunctional relationship between the three siblings is the catalyst, continual momentum, and overall focus of this production. Bickering is the format that Sonia (Barbara Walsh) and Vanya (Bruce Randolph Nelson) use to communicate when they’re alone, whereas Masha (Susan Rome) and Sonia bare their teeth for full-on biting. The wide variety of emotional attachments between the three create fascinating and honest moments that delve deep into the internal mechanisms of their characters’ cores.

Rome, as the pretentious narcissist, arrives after the audience has had a time, however brief, to bond and empathize with the other two siblings. Her dismissive tone, constantly used with Sonia, is indicative of actualizing her character’s fading fame and glory. Rome has several moments of pure comic genius when she flips out for one ridiculous reason or another that are delivered so cleanly and honestly that it’s impossible not to laugh at them. Taking her character’s plight seriously derives wells of comic shenanigans that fuel the hilarious fires of the play as it progresses. Finding unique ways to bring fleeting moments of emotional sincerity to her character’s otherwise vapid and self-absorbed existence, Rome gives a fiercely grounded performance, even if its grounded in her character’s mostly vain intentions.

Sonia (Barbara Walsh) is self-declared bi-polar and does little to keep the audience from believing her. With many moments spent in an extremely depressive sate, it becomes captivating, albeit frightening, to watch her launch suddenly into moments of inexplicable madness and mania. Walsh bends the audience’s heart strings during a scene late in act II; her exposed vulnerability drawing forth from such an earnest place in her character’s soul that you can’t help but feel for her in that moment. She has mastered the art of self-pity for this character but delights in the little quirky things, like enjoying a severe case of Schadenfreude at her sister’s expense after the costume party. Her physical approach to the character’s nerves is fully committed; constantly clutching at her own fingers, or her clothing and keeping her hands always cupped close to her body are definitive choices that set her apart from simply changing her vocal pitch. Comparing this closed-off and timid character Walsh has created with that of her charmingly charismatic “dame Maggie Smith” moments, showcases her impressive versatility as a performer.

Bringing balance to the disturbing and biting forces of Sonia and Masha is Vanya (Bruce Randolph Nelson.) For the most part, Nelson’s character is a delicate and amiable man that attempts to keep the peace between everyone in every situation. The style in which he delivers his particularly sharp and snappy one-liners is not quite deadpan but it does achieve a series of sensational laughs from the audience. Nelson’s mild mannerisms create a sense of complacency in the character, despite Vanya’s self-proclaimed woes. The moment of sheer riveting truth comes during the ‘postage stamp speech’ or perhaps better noted as “Vanya’s haranguing of Spike.” Every ounce of repressed frustration, discontent, and otherwise inhibited emotion that Nelson’s character has felt up until that point comes blasting out of him in a turbulent storm of overwrought fear that had building for far too long. A stunning emotional culmination in that moment it brings Nelson’s performance full circle as the speech is also a direct social commentary on today’s youth and society.

(l to r) Masha (Susan Rome), Cassandra (Kerry Warren), Vanya (Bruce Randolph Nelson), Nina (Emily Peterson), and Sonia (Barbara Walsh).  Photo by Richard Anderson.
(l to r) Masha (Susan Rome), Cassandra (Kerry Warren), Vanya (Bruce Randolph Nelson), Nina (Emily Peterson), and Sonia (Barbara Walsh). Photo by Richard Anderson.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a brilliantly funny, compelling piece of theatre, it’s the diamond in the rough this season; a sparkling comic jewel with life lessons threaded carefully in-between the laughter. Don’t miss Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, or you might miss a golden opportunity to experience a mind-nourishing, heart-warming comic calamity.

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spikeplays through May 25, 2014 at Centerstage—700 North Calvert Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online.