Monday, February 29, 2016

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike"

Disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

In the true spirit of community theatre at its best, the Cloverdale Playhouse opened its Fifth Season with Christopher Durang's uproarious 2013 Tony Award-winning comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. -- At the eleventh hour, Maureen Costello stepped in to play the role of Masha, glancing at her hand-held script but otherwise fully realizing the role, and being graciously supported by the rest of the cast; and the control booth suddenly crashed shortly before the start, leaving Stage Manager James Treadway to work miracles so the audience was hardly aware of any technical difficulties. -- And so, the "show went on" to the delight of the almost full house.

Directed by the Playhouse's new Artistic Director Sarah Walker Thornton, the pace occasionally slowed down as a consequence, its two acts coming in just short of three hours; but that should be remedied once Ms. Costello is more confidently off-book and the light and sound cues are restored.

In rural Bucks County, PA, middle-aged Vanya [George Jacobsen] and his sister Sonia [Katie Pearson] bemoan their economic and social condition -- unemployed and unemployable and steadfastly resigned to doing nothing about it but complain, and supported by their successful movie-star sister Masha [Ms. Costello], who pays the bills since the deaths of their parents -- and spend their time bickering and wistfully awaiting the appearance of a blue heron at the nearby lake.

Their maid Cassandra [Danielle Phillips], true to her classical mythology namesake, predicts doom and leavens the plot with dire warnings that no one believes, until of course, they begin to come true, especially on the arrival of Masha with her handsome, sexy, and obtuse boy-toy Spike [James MacFarlane] in tow. Masha plans to sell the house, with seemingly no concern for what happens to Vanya and Sonia.

Add to this mix a naive local beauty and aspiring actress named Nina [Sarah Worley], who Spike brings back with him from a swim in the lake, and who serves as a distraction from his attention to Masha, and the ensemble is complete.

With a debt to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov [theatre cognoscenti will catch the numerous references to The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull among others, as well as to several other theatre nods], knowledge of these is not necessary for an appreciation of Durang's masterful plotting and acerbic wit. -- For example, though a rare occurrence on local stages, several actors here received deserved applause on their exit lines.

There is a fine sense of ensemble acting in this production, each individualized character contributing to the others in serving Durang's text. -- Ms. Phillips plays Cassandra as a Caribbean "psychic" who can revert to in-your-face street-wise patois in a split second. And she saved the day a few times with references to her "psychic powers" to cover for missing sound cues. Ms. Worley's naivete as Nina is a delightful contrast to some other characters' more overbearing demeanors; her ability to sustain innocence is laudable, and her attachment to "uncle" Vanya marks the sweetest moments of the production.

Mr. MacFarlane's Spike is reminiscent of Chance Wayne from Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth -- a callous gigolo companion to fading movie-star Alexandra Del Lago; but here, Spike is a more likable sort due to Mr. MacFarlane's winning smile, relaxed attitude, and ability to accept whatever comes his way. And he seems as comfortable wearing only underpants or fully dressed.

Durang focuses attention on the siblings, their idiosyncrasies, and long-held rivalries. Since Masha holds the purse-strings, and is used to getting her way on everything, she assumes that others will submit to her every whim; but when Ms. Costello starts giving orders about attending a local costume party as the Disney version of Snow White [Danny Davidson's costumes are a treat], assuming that the others will compliment her persona by dressing as Dwarfs, or in Spike's case as Prince Charming, she is in for unexpected resistance. Vanya insists on portraying Doc instead of Masha's choice of Grumpy; Nina willingly goes along with anything her idol Masha wants, so dresses as Dopey; but it is Ms. Pearson's insistence on playing the Evil Queen ["as played by Maggie Smith going to the Oscars", complete with sequined gown and shining tiara] that takes center stage away from Masha and allows Sonia to bathe in the limelight for a while. -- Ms. Pearson not only puts the attention on Sonia, but relishes the fact and earns audience sympathy.

There's a lot more in the two acts for actors to sink their teeth into, not least is Vanya's tirade against today's obsession with electronic media which Mr. Jacobsen delivers with an intensity that has the audience firmly on his side despite the slow pacing of a long speech.

With its many laugh-out-loud moments, controlled direction, brilliantly realized costumes, Mike Winkelman's evocative set, and ensemble acting by some of the area's finest Thespians, the Cloverdale Playhouse's season is off to a solid start.