Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Colonial Players

TheatreBloom rating:

An actor knows his audience and what it wants. The actors of Colonial Players of Annapolis certainly know that their audiences want comedy. And they do deliver in the finale production of the 2016/2017 season. Directed by Steve Tobin, Colonial Players proudly presents Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-Winning play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Beware of presentiments! Beware of Hootie Pie! Be a wild turkey!

Chock full of Chekhov, Set and Floor Designer Edd Miller as well as Properties Mistress and Set Decorator Constance Robinson layer in a bunch of Easter Eggs for the true Chekhovian fan to discover in the layout of the show’s scenic design. Some are much more obvious than others— like the overhang of the porch being littered with dangling seagull feathers, or the literal cherry orchard welcoming audience into the house— while some are just subtle hints, like the coffee table supported by the three sisters; all of these nuances are a perfect understanding of Durang’s approach to Chekhov. In addition to these little nuggets of treasure, Miller’s scenic work is just strikingly beautiful. The whole house is laid out in glorious decadence and you feel as if you’ve become a part of the old family home. Robinson does an exceptional job of furnishing the layout as well, and gives the props an air of authenticity that balances well against the hints of absurdism laced into the characters and the plot.

Delving down the dell of fanciful creations Costume Designers Kaelynn Bedsworth and Carrie Brady exemplify the characters contained within the production through their sartorial selections. Bedsworth and Brady master the marvels of the dreary wardrobe initially featured on Vanya and Sonia, later transforming the latter into something grandiose and impressive, while keeping characters like Spike, Nina, and Cassandra with an edge of modernity to their wardrobe. The costume party outfits are to die for, Snow White’s princess ensemble looking absolutely garish yet everything nobody remembers the Walt Disney version to be, and the matching dwarf pieces aren’t too shabby either.

Illuminating and cheeky in their craft work, both Lighting Designer Alex Brady and Sound Designer Sarah Wade put a plethora of clever creations into their light and soundscapes respectively. Wade uses the iconic “Hi Ho!” song snippet when the characters depart at the end of the first act for the costume party, all wearing various flavors of Snow White costumery. Working in tandem, Wade and Brady create a hysterical effect every time Cassandra goes into one of her presentiments— it’s almost like a psychedelic flash from an episode of Law & Order. Brady and Wade create visual and aural delights with their work that are appropriate for the overall humorous tone of the comedy.

Director Steve Tobin has relatively few issues with the production. Other than the fact that Masha’s classic “Hollywood” style speech volume is frequently too low to be heard properly, and that the overall pacing of Vanya’s final rant is a bit clunky and stretched out, Tobin drives a firm hand to the direction of the show and understands the nuances of blocking in the Colonial Players’ unique space. It’s clear that Tobin is attempting to give the Masha character the fully Hollywood treatment, completely removed from the lives of the ordinary underlings, and the vocal affectation is a nice touch, but goes a step too far with its authenticity because she becomes difficult to hear at times. Tobin does an exceptional job of focusing on the dynamic relationships between the characters, calling attention to the unspoken tensions quite readily; the best example of this chemistry elevation being the way that Vanya responds to Spike’s presence even when the arm-candy actor wannabe isn’t directly interacting with him.

Patrick Finn, playing the aforementioned arm-candy wannabe actor, is quite engaging in the role. Fitting the bill for young, virile, and comfortable in his own skin, Finn highlights the natural comedy that Durang has crafted into the character, whilst keeping his performance within the confines that Tobin has set for the overall vision of the production. His most humorous moments are often those wherein he’s strutting his stuff, usually by undressing— and particularly when he does the reverse strip-tease— or showing off his muscles, in front of the group. His overall expressions and vocal inflections are convivial and read well to the intent of the character.

(L to R) Patrick Finn as Spike, Jim Reiter as Vanya, Rebecca Kyler Downs as Masha, and Ashley Spooner as Cassandra
(L to R) Patrick Finn as Spike, Jim Reiter as Vanya, Rebecca Kyler Downs as Masha, and Ashley Spooner as Cassandra Colonial Players

Nina (Hallie Parrott) is a delicate subplot-driven character that assists the drama along in the way that a babbling brook assists fallen leaves downstream. Parrott is accidental in her humors, making everything she says sound innocent and naïve and yet curiously sincere. Her most impressive interactions are with Vanya, though it is adorable to watch the way she becomes a tittering star-struck ingénue, fawning over Masha when she meets her. Parrott’s performance as a molecule deep in the second act during Vanya’s play— because what’s a Chekhov if we don’t have the meta element of a play within a play?— is as expected: delightful and confusing, but well received.

Rebecca Kyler Downs sweeps into the house by the pond like she owns the place; rightfully so as her character technically does. Downs strides with a Hollywood flare, a diva’s gait, and a star’s attitude that precedes her into a room. There is a shimmering sheen of frosty insincerity liberally splashed over everything she says when first encountering Sonia and Vanya; Downs’ has an impeccable handle on how to sound condescending while coating it in sugar. Living in the moment with total disregard for organisms that exist outside of her immediate self-invested bubble, Downs readily becomes the character that the audience loves to hate, especially when it comes to her more vicious side.

Sonia (Darice Clewell) is in a league all her own. Miserable and mopey with a dysthymic disposition, Clewell presents a hilariously over-the-top yet simultaneously realistic persona for the moody blue Sonia. Her vocal affectation is subtle but well suited for the character. When she finds a bright streak of confidence, in the second act, it’s amusing but in a much different vein than the humors with which she imbues Sonia in the first act. The pinnacle success of her performance is the monologue that she conducts while on the telephone; Clewell is so invested in the natural pacing of this conversation that you believe you’re hearing both portions of the conversation despite the fact that only her words are audible.

Jim Reiter holds down the fort as Vanya. There isn’t a lead character, per se, in a Durang written, Chekhov based, humor driven drama, but Reiter takes Vanya by the reigns and turns him into the group’s natural-born leader. Straight forward, and easily expressive when it comes to his frustrations at Sonia, Reiter makes the character readily believable. The most engaging portion of his portrayal is watching his facial expression, and by extension the way these extend out into his body, when he’s trying not to be overt about his attraction to Spike. Craving attention— as all good actors do— Reiter pulls focus as he’s meant to in these moments, giving the audience a great to appreciate about the nuance of his craft.

(L to R) Hallie Parrott as Nina, Jim Reiter as Vanya, Patrick Finn as Spike, Rebecca Kyler Down as Masha, Ashley Spooner as Cassandra, and Darice Clewell as Sonia
(L to R) Hallie Parrott as Nina, Jim Reiter as Vanya, Patrick Finn as Spike, Rebecca Kyler Down as Masha, Ashley Spooner as Cassandra, and Darice Clewell as Sonia Colonial Players

Beware of Ashley Spooner! She will make you laugh uncontrollably! She will prick your back and legs with laughing so fierce you’ll roll in the aisles! Stealing the show as the snarky and sarcastic yet wildly entertaining Cassandra, Spooner is an uproarious riot that simply cannot be beat. The director has even worked the pre-show speech and intermission return speech as a presentation for her character, which is wild and insanely entertaining. The accent Spooner affects, in addition to the flawless unwavering physicality with which she moves while tottering through the house only adds to the layers of amusement that are there for the audiences’ enjoyment. Ultimately a scream, Spooner’s portrayal of Cassandra makes the play worthy of a title change to include “…and Cassandra.”

Beware this presentiment! There will be doom and gloom falling onto your head if you do not get a ticket to see this hilarious, excellently performed, sharply paced, and wildly turkeyed production happening at the close of Colonial Players 2016/2017 season.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays through June 10, 2017 at The Colonial Players of Annapolis— 108 East Street in historic Annapolis, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 268-7373 or purchase them online.

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