Tag Archives: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Sex, Voodoo, and Real Estate

Photo credit: K. Synold

by Jeff Grygny

“I am a wild turkey,” she says , and utters a plaintive little gobble, as much to herself as to anyone. This is Sonia, a deeply sad woman in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s delicious, delirious comedy, now neatly delivered by Theatrical Tendencies, Milwaukee’s LGBTQ+ theater company. The title calls back both to Anton Chekhov’s classic play Uncle Vanya, and to a forgettable, raunchy, 1969 film about swinging couples. There’s more of Chekhovian ennui here than bed-hopping, but, since it’s Durang, there are generous helpings of in-jokes for the theater crowd and witty chef’s-kiss gags for all.

When you walk into the cozy space of Inspiration Studios, you know immediately that you’re in good hands: the handsome set by Mark E. Schuster and impeccable musical choices of Aaron J. Robertson speak of taste and craftsmanship. And under Schuster’s confident direction, the actors calibrate their  performances all the way from broad clowning to finely-nuanced feelings. The results are hilarious—and often surprisingly touching.

Half-siblings Vanya and Sonia share a nice country house on a lake. They’ve spent their adult years caring for their parents, and now, like many a Chekhov character, they feel that life has passed them by. Their other sister, Masha, meanwhile, has been supporting them on earnings from her glamorous, three-husband life as a star of stage and screen. When Masha pays an unexpected visit—with a decades-younger boy toy in tow—and announces that she’s selling the house, it triggers a long-simmering family meltdown. Chekhov famously wrote about lost souls searching for meaning in a collapsing world. Many productions treat his plays as solemn marches to entropy. But the good doctor/playwright himself famously called them comedies: portraits of human foibles as warm-hearted as they are clinically precise. Durang sweetens the Chekhovian pot with clever quips, sharp observations, and absurd twists worthy of Monty Python. Because he can.

Even in their quarreling, Mark Neufang and Jillian Smith as the two siblings bring nuance to their expert comic timing. Neufang offers the resigned calm of a gentle soul just trying to have a nice day; while Smith, as the “wild turkey” delivers a master class on the subtleties of feeling. Both of them would be amazing in an actual Chekhov play. Then three cartoon characters come charging into their three dimensional world: Durang is playing the alchemist, mixing stable, volatile, and catalytic substances together to see what happens.

Photo credit: K. Synold

Jaleesa Joy is an utter hoot as their housekeeper Cassandra—a combo of  Greek myth and Mary Poppins—swooping across the stage shrieking dire prophesies, cleansing the vibes with her magic wand, or bending the future with the help of a surprisingly effective voodoo doll. She’s like the fairy of Comedy, making sure that we get the happy ending we require.

Enter Lesley Grider and Kevin J. Gadzalinski as the Hollywood couple from Hell: Masha (a name drop from The Three Sisters) and Spike (from Durang’s imagination). It’s hard to say who’s worse: the self-entitled celebrity or the clueless gold-digging bro. Grider embodies a nightmare avatar of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, while the fearless Gadzalinski’s reverse striptease is a feat for the ages: you can almost smell the Axe body spray. Another catalyst appears in Nina (from The Seagull this time), sweetly portrayed by  Madison Van Allen. A star-struck aspiring actress, Nina worships Masha and befriends Vanya, eventually performing in a little play that he’s written. When Masha enlists everyone as her entourage at a nearby costume party, the sight gags kick into overdrive.

Photo credit: K. Synold

The party’s ugly aftermath collides with Vanya’s play, which is about the end of life on Earth via global warming and an unfortunately-timed asteroid. Vanya catches Spike texting during Nina’s performance as a molecule (you have to be there) and it’s Vanya’s turn to blow up, with a heartfelt elegy for the slower, more connected world he grew up in: a world of phones that you had to dial by hand, stamps you had to lick, and TV shows like Ozzie and Harriet, that might have been stupid, but at least people watched them together. Older members of the audience might find themselves nodding in silent agreement, on the general principle at least. It all ends with a hug, though, and isn’t that the best way for a comedy to end?

You can enjoy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike as a goofy pastiche of Chekhov and old TV sitcoms—in fact, the juxtaposition speaks of the genetic relationship between them. But it also seems like Durang is suggesting that, although being three dimensional isn’t always fun, it’s overall better than being a cartoon. And therein lies our possible redemption. In the word of Cassandra: beware!  

Theatrical Tendencies presents

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

by Christopher Durang

playing through June 23