I welcome the musings of my good friend, acclaimed actor and physician Dr. Larry Adams, as he takes my place at the critic’s desk while I am busy rehearsing for a future production. ========================================================================
“Any idiot can face a crisis. It’s day to day living that wears you out.”
- Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)
Day to day living is wearing out fifty-some year-old siblings Vanya and Sonia in playwright Christopher Durang’s 2013 Broadway hit. Floating through a purposeless existence in the crumbling lakeside estate of their deceased parents, the two casually bicker and lament the trajectory of their uneventful lives, until Masha, their movie star celebrity sister, pays a surprise visit with her young lover, Spike, threatening to uproot it all.
Kathy Pataluch, Jenni White and Jim LaMonte in Spotlight Players’ production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Spotlight Players’ latest offering, is at first glance a play that can’t make up its mind, careening back and forth between- at some points- a black humor study of disagreeable siblings trapped in the ennui of unfulfilled lives, and- at others- a rather pedestrian 70’s TV sitcom. Themes of loneliness, unreached potential, and lives left discarded on the berm in the world’s mad rush for youth and novelty are jarringly juxtaposed against sight gags, plot complications and one-dimensional characters whom one could easily imagine showing up at Mr. Roper’s door in a rerun of “Three’s Company.” In this, a little familiarity with the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov is like insanity in the workplace: it’s not essential, but it sure helps. Chekhov, a nineteenth and early twentieth century physician who in his spare time dabbled a bit in literature and playwriting during the waning days of the Russian Empire, is the ghost behind the setting and nearly all of the machinations of Vanya and Sonia et al. His trademark mix of comedy and tragedy was presumably the model for Durang’s modern day script, and Durang does everything but take out Super Bowl ads to telegraph this to the audience- probably a wise thing when your prospective audience includes Biology majors like me, whose first thought when someone mentions “Chekhov” is not masterworks of great literature but “Shields up, keptin?” The setting of an ancestral home on a lake, multiple character names, and several plot devices are all straight out of Chekhov’s most famous works, and, as if this weren’t enough, Durang’s characters pointedly and repeatedly vocalize for the audience their parents’ preoccupation with community theater and the dead Russian playwright. Suddenly (or at least, for me, after a little post hoc research at the University of Google), the structure of the show begins to make some sense. We watch, sympathize and laugh as the six characters on stage express their dreams, lament their failures and attempt to exert some control over lives that are not quite what they had hoped. But after nearly two and a half hours of bickering and angst-filled inertia that seems, in true Chekhovian style, to go almost nowhere, Durang suddenly (spoiler alert!) wraps it all up with a rather contrived and decidedly un-Chekhovian happy ending that is, I’m afraid, both jarring and ultimately unsatisfying. Back to the 70’s sitcom. Roll credits. “And next, on a very special MacGyver…”
Jim LaMonte and Nan Macy in Spotlight Players’ production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”
My problem with the script aside (and let me emphasize that, unlike A Seat on the Aisle’s head honcho, my good friend Ken Klingenmeier, this humble back-bencher has absolutely no training or qualifications in theater criticism at all beyond a book report I wrote in middle school; this show won the 2013 Tony Award, for Pete’s sake, so you should probably take my review with the proverbial grain of salt), I must say that Spotlight Players has, as is its habit, once again staged a production that showcases the best of Indianapolis community theater. The actors are all top-notch, inhabiting their characters with strong choices befitting their roles, and director Jeremy Tuterow has molded them into a cohesive unit that seems comfortable managing whatever the text throws at them.
Newcomer Rahshe Byrd plays Spike, a boy-toy who seems to flirt, tease, and strip to his underwear at every opportunity “because,” as one character wryly notes, “he can.” I could have stood with a little less bopping in his walking every time he crossed the stage, but Byrd resists the urge to overact that is seen in most first-timers to the stage and instead exudes a natural delivery, confidence and poise that bodes well for a promising theatrical career ahead. Megan Nicole Smith brings a youthful exuberance and sweetness to Nina, the one fully likable character of the show, sparking some life in the world-weary Vanya and providing a nice counterpoint to Masha’s rough edges and sharp elbows in an enjoyable (if somewhat downplayed) rivalry for Spike’s romantic attentions.
Rahshe Byrd and Nan Macy in Spotlight Players’ production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”
Jenni White plays Cassandra, the domestic servant and soothsayer who, like her namesake, is prone to making dire predictions of doom that no one takes seriously. Durang seems to have conjured her straight out of Central Casting as the nutty housekeeper, with no real purpose in the show but comedy relief, but White laudably commits to it entirely, nearly taking over every scene she inhabits. Nan Macy is wonderful as Masha, the aging movie star diva, injecting every line and facial expression with a theatrical flourish that is both humorous and sad in its attempt to cover the fall from a life and theatrical career that have not met her expectations. White and Macy drew the biggest laughs of the night.
The heart of the show, however, belongs to Vanya and Sonia, the show’s only truly three dimensional characters, played with depth and feeling by Jim LaMonte and Kathy Pataluch respectively. Pataluch captures the resigned despair of a middle aged woman sidelined throughout life by circumstance and choice; her second act portrayal of disbelief that anyone could genuinely be interested in her is both touching and spot-on. LaMonte, always a bright point in any production of his I’ve been fortunate enough to see, once again impresses with his laser-lock on the character, illustrating with subtlety and finesse the fatalistic acquiescence to dreams deferred by family obligations, circumstance, and the inertia of life. His deft handling of a climactic monologue bemoaning the death of everything from rotary phones to Ozzie and Harriet is a highlight of the show and brought poignancy and meaning to what could easily have come off as simply a rambling, disjointed rant. We’ve all known people like Vanya and Sonia in our lives- heck, we’ve all been people like Vanya and Sonia in our lives, at one time or another. And it is that appeal to the universal that is theater at its best. We can all relate.
In Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Spotlight Players has succeeded in bringing a challenging show- challenging for both the actors and the audience- to the Indianapolis area, and I encourage everyone to support it and take advantage of it. There certainly is a market, and even a need, for perennial favorite shows; but the rich community theater “community” we boast has the potential- and, I daresay, the obligation– to expand the horizons of our audience from time to time with off-the-beaten-path shows such as this. “Only entropy comes easy,” Chekhov once wrote; to stay relevant and alive, theater has to grow. No matter how much you like it, you can only watch Steel Magnolias so many times.
(As a side note: At the door, Spotlight Players is collecting packages of underwear- something Spike would appreciate- for The Coburn Place, a transitional housing program for victims of domestic abuse, and Horizon House, a secular resource center for the homeless. I don’t think a donation gets you any discount off your ticket- though it does get your name in a drawing for a season pass- but it will make you feel just a little bit better about yourself!)
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues at Spotlight Players new venue, Theater at the Fort, 8920 Otis Ave. in Lawrence through April 17th. You can find out more information and make reservations by going to http://www.spotlight-players.org or by calling 317-366-4795.
- – Photos from Spotlight Players