Here’s something unusual – a hopeful modern play

Here’s something unusual  – a hopeful modern play

SHOW: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
DIRECTOR: Bobby Heaney
CAST: Michael Richard, Bo Petersen, Louise Saint-Claire, Emilie Owen, Kensiwe Tshabalala and Richard Gau
VENUE: Theatre on the Bay until Saturday, September 6
REVIEW: PETER TROMP

‘Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike’ has almost no right to work as well as it does. Reference humour abounds in this play, with characters continually namedropping other plays, specifically the works of Anton Chekhov, and also other media. It’s the kind of thing that can be exasperating for anyone who might not be in on the joke. Even semi-regular theatregoers are likely to be left somewhat in the dark by the cultural erudition on display. Unlike many (especially pop) cultural products that exist these days, this referencing doesn’t happen for its own sake. Rather, it’s employed by the characters and is used to illustrate a number of things about them, specifically how their refined middle class sensibilities have become a prison of sorts that has disconnected them from the wider world.

This emphasis on characters to relate certain themes – rather than the other way around – ultimately results in ‘Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike’ being a winner. Christopher Durang’s creation – the 2013 Tony award winner for Best Play –is unlikely to shift your world too much (as one would expect a Tony award winning play to do), but nonetheless provides one with some food for thought about how the times have shifted, and people’s intrinsic values along with them. (It’s the kind of play where the ill-timed answering of a smart phone has relatively big consequences.)
When one is invited to invest so much emotional currency in the characters, they can really make or break a play, but fortunately the lot assembled in ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ is an interesting and multi layered enough bunch to sit through two plus hours with.
Perhaps Bobby Heaney’s most inspired choice as director was in his casting, because every actor is perfect for their role. There is a palpable sense of fun in their interplays, which extends to the audience and makes for a very enjoyable evening out. Watching the likes of Michael Richard and Bo Petersen on top form is especially pleasurable.

Heaney’s direction felt a tad slapstick at times on opening night, even for a play that is very humorous, but the more poignant moments were expertly handled. I’m sure this unevenness in timbre will settle over the coming days as everyone gets more comfortable.
Perhaps uncharacteristic for such a modern work is ‘Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike’’ overall hopeful tone. Durang might come across as quite unenamoured with the modern world, but the playwright doesn’t seem to believe we’re quite the lost cause as many of his contemporaries do. Leaving the theatre on an upbeat mood is rather a nice change of pace.

* Book at Computicket.