Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Torrance Theatre Company
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
Jay Castle, Liliana Carrillo, and Rebecca Silberman
Photo by Alex Madrid
Three of the four names in the title of this Christopher Durang play sound familiar, right? The three are characters in classic Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s plays. Spike? Not so much. But although this play may get nods and titters of recognition for its parallels to and references to Chekhov, it is far more than just a clever mash-up. By its end, at least in this production, the audience will care about these people and might even be inspired to rejigger our own lives.
Here, Vanya, Sonia, and Masha are middle-aged siblings. Their story takes place at the family homestead in eastern Pennsylvania. Vanya (Jay Castle) and Sonia (Rebecca Silberman) have always lived here. Until recently, they had been caregivers for their age-ravaged parents. Masha (Jennifer Faneuff) is world-renowned actor, who left home but who has paid every family bill and then some. Now she returns to the house to drop a bomb. In need of constant adulation, she brings boy-toy Spike.
Vanya seems to have accepted his role in life, though tucked away is a play he has written that voices his fears and frustrations. Sonia cannot accept her role, because, in her mind, every day takes her further away from a chance at a full life. The family is tended to by Cassandra. Don’t remember that name from Russian literature? The original Cassandra was memorialized in Greek mythology, blessed with a gift of prophecy but cursed to never be believed. This Cassandra (Liliana Carrillo) has the gift, but it’s a bit askew, and she can manipulate it.
Outsiders who stir the status quo are Spike (Luke Barrow), eager to advance his career and to strip down to his tidy plaidies (more about Bradley Allen Lock’s excellent costuming later), and Nina, also a Chekhov character of course. This Nina (Carly Linehan) and the Russian one are the pretty, young, aspiring actors visiting from next door, nubile benchmarks that chafe the older women.
James Hormel stages the production gracefully and directs with a pleasing mix of sweetly comedic and wrenchingly poignant tones, never going for cheap laughs. On Cary Jordahl’s transportive set, with lighting by Streetlite that evokes Russian sunlight, the action spreads across the porchlike morning room and makes us believe we can see the orchard and lake (yes, Chekhov’s locales are here, too).
Hormel seems to have found the child in all of the siblings, a characteristic that emerges often in real life when long-separated families reunite. In Silberman’s Sonia a touch of a tantrum lurks, waiting to be set off, though, by Act 2, events have given Sonia a minutely more vibrant carriage and slightly upturned chin. In Vanya, Castle swaths himself in a comforting brotherly aura. Faneuff, though fully exhibiting the glamour of Masha the star, finds the bruised heart of Masha the middle child, who had to make a role for herself in this family.
Two monologues vent Vanya’s and Sonia’s thoughts and fears. Sonia’s happens as she takes a phone call, excellently executed by Silberman as Sonia’s, and our, heart cracks open. For Vanya, it comes in a release of long-repressed words as young Nina tries to read his play but modern life intrudes in the form of Spike’s obliviousness.
Linehan’s Nina is indeed luminous, her youthful worship of and respect for the siblings never waning. Barrow’s Spike has his moments, particularly his “audition” scene, in which he creates without self-consciousness an actor totally into himself. Adding liveliness and a cheeky meta-theatricality, Carrillo’s Cassandra bursts in with prophecy that sounds like Euripides being delivered on a community theater stage.
Lock’s costuming includes a sequined gown for Sonia that leaves latitude for a comedic but apt visual joke. There’s also an appropriate amount of latitude in Spike’s briefs. And outfits for the neighbors’ costume party earn Lock sincere, spontaneous applause.
On one level, this play is about family dynamics and how the healthy-at-their-core ones draw closer when threatened by toxic outsiders. Ultimately, though, it’s about escaping the roles others assign to us, the characters we cast ourselves as and then act out, without acknowledging our authentic selves. Chekhov would be smiling.
January 25, 2016
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Christopher Tierney and Gillian Abbott
Photo by Matthew Murphy
In marketing this production, we’re told we’ll once again have the time of our lives; I, for one, would like my two-and-a-half hours back. Capitalizing on the lasting success of the classic 1987 movie of the same name is all this touring production is about, even evidenced by a life-size figure of the late Patrick Swayze placed in the lobby to get loyal fans in the mood even before the downbeat.
And in the mood those diehard fans are. In all honesty, a great portion of Pantages opening-nighters appeared to be having the time of their lives reliving the moments from the original film obviously still indelible to them. There is a pervasive and bold reliance throughout the production on video projections, with scenes from the movie duplicated then combined with actors playing waiters and others endlessly tromping on stage and off, placing and removing trees, tables, and chairs, chairs, and more chairs.
Beginning with a panoramic vista of the Catskills in 1963, followed by the entrance to Kellerman’s resort, the visual nostalgia goes into high gear when Johnny Castle (Christopher Tierney) starts training Baby Houseman (Gillian Abbott) in the great outdoors, doing so behind a scrim with videos of a field of tall grass and the shimmering waters of the Hudson projected before them. Anyone who is not familiar with the movie would still have no trouble identifying these locations as directly copied from its predecessor, since members of the continuously swooning and gasping audience chockfull of fans laugh and cheer at first sight of each location as though recalling something that happened in their own personal past some 29 years ago, when the film debuted.
There’s not much to praise in this production, which would probably be successful if one day it lands in one of the venues formerly hosting Menopause the Musical or Carrot Top in the lower-rent district of the Vegas Strip. The acting is uniformly unremarkable, while director James Powell’s staging meanders around the pivotal dance numbers as though someone was making it all up as he went along. The script—which makes brief and pandering references to the civil rights issues of the times going on elsewhere while these people concentrate on dance competitions, croquet lessons, and seemingly unprotected sex between the staff and the guests—duplicates scene after scene from the film without a lick of passion to help us care about these people or what’s happening to them.
One would think, in a lavishly produced touring musical version of a story with Dancing as half of its title, the dancing—and the choreography, by Michele Lynch, re-creating the original inspiration of Kate Champion—would be far better. Even Tierney, as the Swayze-hunk housepainter making his seasonal living teaching dancing at the resort while reputedly bedding an impressive number of the womenfolk, appears more undirected than talentless. His movements overextend almost past the balance point, with arms suddenly thrust out so far they could clock anyone dancing around him who might one day get too close. There’s someone extremely capable in there somewhere, but without more guidance here, his performance is more grandstanding than graceful.
Perhaps the best work comes from Adrienne Walker and Doug Carpenter as the show’s resident singers, doing a dynamic job with some of the most enduring standards from the era, such as “This Magic Moment” and, of course, the show’s signature “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life.” Oddly, throughout most of the production they are merely props, hanging out and singing their hearts out on either side of the stage as their fellow cast members dance—until very late in the game when a sketchy tacked-on love story between them is hinted at but never explored.
The original film deserves a better stage treatment then this sketchy and sanitized tribute show; changing its name to Slightly Smudged Dancing would be far more accurate.
February 3, 2016
2–Feb. 21. 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. Tue-Thu 8pm, Fri 8pm; Sat
2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 35
minutes, including intermission. $29-150. (800) 982-2787.
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