Vanya + Sonia + Masha + Spike = marvelously delivered Durang theatrics

A theatre review by John Busbee/Culture Buzz

May 7, 2015

StageWest Theatre Company continues a successful journey through its inaugural season in its new performing venue, the Kum & Go Theater, with Christopher Durang’s wacky, cerebral comedy, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” Delivering a show which resonates in StageWest’s performance sweet spot, this production will delight its audiences through this coming Sunday, May 17.

Durang’s comedy spins around two caretaker siblings’ relationship with their financially successful film star sister. Vanya and Sonia live together on the family estate, complete with a cherry orchard, seemingly content to rely on their sister’s largess. Masha supports them by covering expenses for the property and providing them with modest allowances. The Chekhovian overtones, beginning with their names, are undeniable, a theme burdening the three siblings like prisoners’ shackles. Durang quickly develops his story to outrageous and hilarious extremes, providing this talented ensemble the opportunity to shine at various times. With the pending possibility of Masha selling the estate, leaving her siblings out in the cold, and the unintended youthful intrusion of a visiting neighbor, Nina, who seems to be distracting Masha’s boy toy, Spike, this story holds the audience through its engaging, if incredible, progression. Add the Disney-esque overtones of a costume party where Masha insists on being Snow White, pushing others into Seven Dwarves roles, and Durang is at his outlandish best.

Director Jennifer Ross Nostrala brings an eclectic mix together in casting this engaging work. Anchored by stage veterans, Jim Benda and Ann Woldt, who play Vanya and Sonia, respectively, this production surges forward with wonderful ebbs and flows. Woldt and Benda’s opening scene is delivered with masterful interplay and wonderful extremes, from pastoral bliss to tempestuous peaks, as their relationship and each character’s personality warts are exposed. A small alteration in the morning coffee routine quickly becomes a cataclysmic confrontation, leaving the audience close to tears of laughter. Each understands her or his role, and totally embraces all the nuances and rich context Durang has infused into his script.

As Cassandra, the housekeeper who embraces her namesake and delivers dire prophecies, Andréa Markowski is encased in a gypsy-like wardrobe and delivers lines ranging from melodramatic flair to tossing off a reply or comment. While still bringing fun into the action, Markowski doesn’t fully develop her Cassandra, as a tinge of self-consciousness seems to restrain her from reaching the delicious full potential of this role. Arlene McAtee, a newcomer with lots of experience in other venues, brings the pivotal Masha to vibrant, self-indulgent life. McAtee’s Masha captures much of the imperious expectance of her position in the family, although she seems to lose occasional focus in some key monologues. Call it opening weekend rough spots these are correctable issues. Spike is Masha’s much younger lover, and Zander Morales turns in some of the most memorable and laugh-out-loud moments with his performance. With all the self-aware preening and posing of a banty rooster, Morales gives total commitment to his exhibitionist role, much to the delight of the audience. Spike’s self-indulgence ruffles other characters, but he sloughs any criticisms off easily. The introduction of next-door visitor, Nina, brings a special intrigue to the action, and obvious jealousy issues for Masha. Emily Wohlers wraps her Nina in an innocent and somewhat naïve cloak, dovetailing into this eclectic ensemble effectively. All comes together for an enjoyable immersion into a rewarding evening of comedy.

Two especially rewarding scenes came from Woldt and Benda. During a touching telephone conversation, always challenging when the person on the other end isn’t heard, Woldt adds dimension and color to her Sonia. Benda brings all his talents to bear during his final monologue, a compelling and moving rant and revelation combination where he leverages his character’s full power in surprising fashion. These two moments alone are worth the price of admission.

April Zingler produces an effective scenic design, giving plenty of working space for the director and her cast, while providing eye-catching aesthetics for the audience. This is a mirth-filled romp, which delivers quirky character interplay, and will satisfy anyone’s appetite for an entertaining evening of comedy.