Misery Loves Company: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike Opens ATP’s 2015/16 Season

Directed by Glynis Leyshon, Christopher Durang's absurd comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike opens Alberta Theatre Projects 2015/16 season. Left to right: Christopher Hunt, Lois Anderson, Sonja Smits, and Stafford Perry. Image courtesy of Alberta Theatre Projects.

Directed by Glynis Leyshon, Christopher Durang’s absurd comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike opens Alberta Theatre Projects’ 2015/16 season. Left to right: Christopher Hunt, Lois Anderson, Sonja Smits, and Stafford Perry. Image courtesy of Alberta Theatre Projects.

Morning. Vanya and Sonia’s family home.

Unemployed and lacking purpose in their lives, middle-aged siblings Vanya (Christopher Hunt) and Sonia (Lois Anderson) indulge in self-pity, and listen to what prophecies their cleaning lady Cassandra (Nadien Chu), who no ever believes, has for them today. The day is set to be like every other day, that is until their sister Masha (Sonja Smits) makes a surprise visit home.

Opening Alberta Theatre Projects’ 2015/16 season is Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, an absurd comedy about three (im)mature siblings caught adrift in disappointment. Durang evokes elements of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s writing for this oddly touching, albeit flat, story of siblings trying to reconcile with each other and life’s what-ifs.

For 15 years, Vanya and Sonia cared for their parents, now deceased, while Masha made something of her life as a film actress. And despite their parents, whose love for community theatre led them to name their children after Chekhov characters, being gone, Vanya and Sonia’s lives remain in pause, burdened by discontent over what could have been. Thankfully, Masha’s film career has not only been able to pay for the home and all the bills, but also a small living stipend for her brother and adopted sister.

Underneath the shiny veneer of her film career, Masha’s life is rife with disappointment, too. After five failed marriages, Masha has landed herself Spike (Stafford Perry), a dumb-as-rocks boy toy who ‘almost’ got cast in the sequel to Entourage. Masha’s sense of superiority over her siblings is largely a facade to hide her own insecurities – which only worsen when the neighbor’s young niece Nina (Lara Schmitz), an aspiring actress, enters the picture.

Director Glynis Leyshon has the difficult task of staging Durang’s bloated script, which runs here two hours with a 20 minute intermission. The first act is certainly good. Sonia’s resentment over being adopted and ignored all her life makes tense her relationship with Masha, and uneasy Vanya who is caught between them. Anderson, Hunt, and Smits squabble as only siblings do, making for rich comedic moments as the strained dynamic between their childish characters develops. The dysfunctionality comes to a boil when Smit’s insensitive Masha tells Vanya and Sonia that she intends on selling the family home, effectively leaving them homeless. Like a rifle hanging on the wall, the audience waits to see what drama unfolds in the second act.


The second act sees the audience restless in their seats, which is too bad considering Leyshon finds something genuine for both Sonia and Vanya.

Over the phone, Sonia manages to develop a connection with someone she met at the neighbor’s costume party. Anderson’s timid vulnerability runs through excitement, self-doubt, and then self-affirmation, earning her well-deserved applause from the audience. Meanwhile, Hunt’s Vanya, disgusted by Spike’s ‘millennial’ ignorance, delivers an impassioned rant about the past, technology, and our increasingly isolated 21st century lives. Hunt’s convictions falter, however, as he slowly realizes that the past had its share of flaws too, eventually confronting the depressing idea that life has never been good. Regret for what was lost turns to regret for what can never be gained. Applause.

Beyond these two standout moments, the play’s second act feels hastily thrown together, almost like a mishmash of ideas. Certainly, Durang is something of an acquired taste, but here even those familiar with his work will feel dismayed by the playwright’s dull writing. Leyshon, as mentioned, does make it work to some degree, but unfortunately the script is too laden with Chekhovian decline.

Plain, but sophisticated with its fireplace and tall book shelves, Catherine Hahn’s rustic set is simply gorgeous. Hahn’s set embodies a pristine, frozen in time quality that reflects well the state of the characters whose discontent line the antiquated walls.

Really, ATP’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is fun, thanks to the talent of its cast. Perry has plenty fun flaunting his sculpted physique as the underwear clad Spike. Chu hams it up to great effect for the crazed, prophesy spewing Cassandra. Schmitz’s peppy, doe eyed Nina plays a molecule in a ridiculous play-within-a-play about climate change. Unfortunately, a sluggish second act fails to deliver, leaving the audience ready to exit before curtain.

Alberta Theatre Projects’ production of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike ran September 15 – October 3rd, 2015.

For more information about the show, visit: http://atplive.com/whats-on/vanya-and-sonia-and-masha-and-spike/

Theatre BSMT’s !Duranged! Is a Fun, Bizarre Evening at the Theatre

“Safe” is not a word that appears in Playwright Christopher Durang’s vocabulary. If one needs proof of this, then one only needs to look to Durang’s ‘dentity Crisis and Wanda’s Visit. And conveniently for us, Theatre BSMT has packaged the two for its latest production.

Presented at Motel Theatre inside the EPCOR Centre, Theatre BSMT’s double header !Duranged! is an evening of absurdist humour injected with high-energy antics.

First up is ‘dentity Crisis, the evening’s more bizarre play. Coming off a recent suicide attempt, Jane (Elisa Benzer) is trapped at home with her overbearing mother, Edith Fromage (Hayley Feigs), who claims to have invented cheese. Jane’s brother Robert (Alan Johnson) offers no solace as he is not only passionately in love with their mother, but he is constantly turning into Jane’s father, her grandfather, and a French count. Jane’s only ally seems to be her psychiatrist Mr. Summers (DJ Gellatly) who helps her cope with her psychosis.

Benzer does well not to play her lines for laughs, instead going for the dark, disturbed nature of her character (as she best demonstrates in her “Peter Pan” monologue). In doing so, the ensuing absurdity has somewhere to go as opposed to hitting us at 100% from the beginning , which would exhaust the audience.

The escalating nature of the piece is laugh-out loud funny. The actors fully commit to the outrageous hijinks that hit one after another from beginning to end. (It gets to a point where even the sight of Gellatly’s ridiculous facial expressions draw big laughs from the audience).

Unfortunately, some of that eagerness leads to some stumbling on lines.

As well, the momentum of the play is interrupted by the poor build of the two doors on stage. Every entrance and exit makes the door frames wobble, giving the actors a hard time when they try to shut the door behind them. It is enough to cause a dip in the energy.

Jane loses grasp of reality and her own identity in Christopher Durang's 'dentity Crisis. Pictured (left to right): Alan Johnson, Hayley Feigs (Back), Elisa Benzer (Front), DJ Gellatly. Photo Credit: Chelsey Fawcett

Jane loses grasp of reality and her own identity in Christopher Durang’s ‘dentity Crisis. Pictured (left to right): Alan Johnson, Hayley Feigs (Back), Elisa Benzer (Front), DJ Gellatly. Photo Credit: Chelsey Fawcett

Foregoing an intermission, a fun musical interlude plays while the cast disassembles and arranges the set for the evening’s second play.

Wanda’s Visit tells the story of Jim (Gellatly) and Marsha (Tara Marlena Laberge), a married couple celebrating 13 years together. But when Jim’s old highschool girlfriend Wanda (Feigs) comes to visit, jealousy and temptation threaten to ruin Jim and Marsha’s marriage.

Compared to ‘dentity Crisis, Wanda’s Visit is much more grounded in reality which shows in Durang’s very funny, but also genuine marital dialogue between Jim and Marsha.

And the couple really stands out thanks to Laberge and Gellatly who are a great pairing.

Laberge is fantastic in delivering Marsha’s sharp remarks and pent up frustration which occasionally slips out over the course of the play. Gellatly is entertaining as the bumbling husband who tries to satisfy both his wife and this mad woman who wedges herself between them. And together, they share this relaxed chemistry that is simply a joy to watch.

Wanda, on the other hand, is an atrocious character whose despicable behavior as a guest grates on our nerves. And Durang leaves it that way until the very end where finally, something interesting happens. Until that point, the audience is stuck with a joke that stops being funny within the first 10 minutes.

Feigs does her best with the given material, but even her performance runs a bit stale.

How does !Duranged! stand as a whole package? Durang’s strange sense of humour may not be for everyone, but there is something about this selection of plays that is just fun. The whole evening is a lively theatrical experience fueled by slapstick and chaos. And yes, there are issues with both the plays and the production itself, but the evening has an indescribable charm to it.

Ultimately, Theatre’s BSMT !Duranged! is a curious evening of two plays that will certainly leave an impression on audiences.

*This review is based off a preview performance.

Theatre BSMT’s !Duranged! runs at the Motel Theatre inside the EPCOR Centre from Dec 10 – 20, 2014.

For more information about the show and how to purchase tickets, visit: http://www.theatrebsmt.ca/Theatre_BSMT/Whats_On.html