All in this together

By Chrissy Steinbock — Sun, 29/05/2016 - 10:54

Now playing at the Gladstone Theatre, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike  is a zany romp that finds humour in the painfully awkward and existentially painful.

Perhaps the most accessible work from the pen of absurdist playwright Christopher Durang, the play found success early on, killing it on Broadway with an all-star cast and winning a bunch of awards including a Tony award. Now thanks to Plosive Productions and director David Whiteley Ottawa audiences get to see what all the fuss is about. In one long sentence, it’s got the badly behaved neurotic characters of a Woody Allen movie, some Wes Anderson quirkiness, more than a few winks to Chekhov and a charming comedic mix of witty one-liners and farcical physicality. As far as content, the story revolves around sibling relationships and the fear of aging. If you don’t have patience for self-pity or angsty hand-wringing though this may not be the play for you.

Vanya and Sonia are siblings. They live in their childhood home in rural Pennsylvania and haven’t left in 45 years. While their actress sister Masha set out to conquer the world, they stayed behind to care for their elderly parents, eccentric professors who named their children after Chekhov characters. When their parents passed away and it came time to move on, Vanya and Sonia just hung around, too stuck to move forward. Without an aim or even a job to occupy them, they simply keep on. After all the time spent living together they resemble an old married couple more than they do siblings.  They chase each other’s tails in their small talk, tiffing over small matters of morning coffee, and what constitutes an orchard. Then Masha comes to stay for a weekend and overthrows their dull routine, setting the stage for some much-needed confrontations and a chance to change. It isn’t long before we see that all three siblings are stuck in their ways. In spite of her fame and success, even Masha is finding it tricky to navigate the choppy waters of middle age. Throw in a kooky, psychic housekeeper, Masha’s handsome young squeeze, the girl next door and a costume party and you have the makings for the antics that follow.

VSMS’s appeal comes down to Durang’s unique sense of humour and how relatable the relationships are. You will undoubtedly see some of yourself and your siblings in this show whether it’s the ridiculous interactions where the smallest discussions become heated arguments or the grudges that are carried for years without mention.  I got in touch with Chris Ralph who plays Vanya and is co-producing the show to learn more about what makes it great. As far as the comedic style, it’s a mixed bag. “There’s a ton of one-liners," Ralph says. "Durang is a very smart guy. So it’s very witty I would say. But at the same time the zaniness leads to some of this broad comedy as well so it’s a real mix of the witty and broad humour which makes it pretty unique in the world of playwriting. Usually, it’s one or the other.” Truly, Durang’s wordplay make for some delicious repartee like when Masha introduces her latest boyfriend and Vanya answers dryly, “He’s handsome, is he a good idea?” or when Masha excuses herself for not keeping in touch saying, “life happens, no?” and Sonia deadpans “not here it doesn’t. We sit still a lot. We look out the window. We bicker.”

I have to admit I was a little intimidated when I read the line in the synopsis “Mixing Chekhov sensibilities with modern flair,” though accessibility is no issue here. Durang describes his script saying, "My play is not a Chekhov parody...I take Chekhov scenes and characters and put them into a blender." That’s to say the Chekhov connection comes down to Easter Egg references to amuse those who know his work in a play that really does stand on its own. 

There’s a lot more than Chekhov in Durang’s blender too. The soft-spoken Vanya surprises with a rambling monologue in the second act where he drops a rainbow of references from the Bible to Dinah Shore and Howdy Doody to Disney to Entourage. This barrage of signifiers and quirky comedy can stand for the play as a whole. It’s entertaining, witty and accessible but in spite of critical success, this kind of haphazardness will keep it from becoming a classic.  

Chris Ralph is a stoic Vanya, the rock of the family who holds a lot inside. Ralph does a nice job of playing between his lines to express the weight of his characters’ quiet frustration. After hanging back, he springs to life for his monologue, a rage against change and all the good that’s lost in the digital age. Sonia (Mary Ellis) on the other hand is not nearly as solid as she faces the void that is the rest of her life. Ellis brings a welcome intensity to the role, giving pop to Sonia’s over the top melancholy and stealing the show in her excruciatingly awkward second act phone call scene. Another highlight is where she and Masha collapse in a fit of wallowing and tears over their failures and fears of aging. True siblings, they try to one-up each other even in self-pity. Teri Loretto-Valentik who has a talent for playing larger than life characters shines as peacock proud Masha, playing her with brass tempered with a touching vulnerability.

Beverley Wolfe’s take on Cassandra, the housekeeper and house mystic may remind you of a bird with her bright, nimble gestures, and exaggerated pertness. She’s hilarious throughout but especially when she goes into one of her trances to peer into the future. Drew Moore gets at all of Spike’s self-wonder and obliviousness, often posing or stripping or both. The challenge for the actors in this play is to keep their characters relatable though they are all a bit of a caricature. It was probably most impressive how naturally Moore played Spike who’s the biggest caricature of them all.  Playing Nina, Sarah Finn has all the sweetness of a girl next door though her performance could be stronger with the nervousness dialed back here and there.

On opening night, there were a few lines that could have landed better and the pace tends to get bogged down at times, particularly in the first act that establishes the limbo that is Vanya and Sonia’s life.  The second act is markedly better in terms of both the material and the performances. Overall, it may not be all that even or cohesive but it is a fun show with lots of belly laughs and moments of cathartic identification with the zaniness on stage.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays at the Gladstone through to June 5

Showtimes are Tuesday- Saturday7:30pm and Saturday & Sunday matinees at 2:30pm

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