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Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike cast photo

It is such a pleasure to attend a performance where every element-writing, acting, direction, technical aspects-come together in a consummately first-class production. Such is the Arts Club Theatre’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning (2013 Best Play) homage to Anton Chekov, directed by Rachel Ditor, at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage. 

Christopher Durang is a prolific and award-winning playwright whose work has been produced on and off Broadway, across the U.S., and abroad. Durang is a writer who admires the classics and references them often in his own plays. His works are characterized as satirical, dark comedy, and absurdist. They are also funny. All of this is well illustrated in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

Susinn McFarlen, Anna Galvin
[Susinn McFarlen, Anna Galvin]

But while there are plenty of references to Chekov and his major works, it is certainly not necessary to be a Chekov cognoscenti to appreciate this play; better to focus attention on what is a very witty and well-written story.

Vanya (Jay Brazeau), Sonia (Susinn McFarlen), and Masha (Anna Galvin) are three siblings burdened by their scholarly theatre-loving parents with names of characters from Chekov plays. Vanya and Sonia live together in the family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

We quickly learn from Vanya and Sonia that that they were resentful but faithful caretakers of their demented parents (now deceased), that Sonia was adopted, that Masha financially supports her two older siblings, and that, while claiming to be unhappy, Vanya and Sonia are truly set in their ways. 

Carmen Aguirre
[Carmen Aguirre]

Their lives have stagnated while younger glamourous Masha has left home and become a Hollywood star. She shows up unexpectedly at the family home, ostensibly to attend an influential neighbour’s weekend costume party, with much younger toy boy Spike (Robert Salvador) in tow. Her siblings find out eventually that she has decided to sell the family home — the true reason for her visit.

Rounding out the ensemble are part-time housekeeper Cassandra (Carmen Aguirre) and Nina (Katey Hoffman), the visiting niece of a neighbour.

Director Rachel Ditor’s made an inspired choice of cast members. Under her able direction, they all work well together and perfectly respond to their characters with a mixture of the ridiculous and the poignant. Moreover, Durang has weaved into the group scenes parts for each performer in which each gets to shine in their own individual moment on stage. All six actors rise to the occasion. 

Cassandra the housekeeper/clairvoyant lives up to her Greek mythology namesake. She dramatically makes dour prophecies which no one understands and serve only to irritate her employers, but in effect confirm their own negative view of the world. Carmen Aguirre is perfect in this role.

Anna Galvin
[Anna Galvin]

Anna Galvin is excellent as the self-centred and dictatorial Masha who treats the others  as her supporting cast. She transforms over the course of the weekend from total narcissist to honestly revealing her fears of growing older, her fading career, and her failure at relationships (five times married and divorced). 

Susinn McFarlen’s Sonia also effectively transforms during the course of the weekend. She starts out as resentful and angry, but turns into the star of the costume party as the Evil Queen as portrayed by Maggie Smith.

Robert Salvador, Katey Hoffman
[Robert Salvador, Katey Hoffman] 

Katey Hoffman is sweet as Nina, the starstruck aspirant actress who forms a special bond with “Uncle Vanya”, and who plays a molecule in a play written by Vanya.   

Especially memorable and brilliantly done is Robert Salvador’s strip scene in Act 1 with its shades of The Real Monty and just as funny.

But the highlight of the evening is Vanya’s rant in Act 2. For most of the play he is timid and conciliatory, but loses it when Spike rudely answers a text on his phone at an inappropriate moment. Durang has saved the best speech for last.

Robert Salvador, Anna Galvin, Jay Brazeau
[Robert Salvador, Anna Galvin, Jay Brazeau]

Vanya criticizes everything wrong with today’s technology-obsessed society and praises everything right with the 1950’s. No one over 50 raised in North America will miss the cultural references in Jay’s monologue. Durang makes interesting observations on mid-20th century culture that was banal but shared, compared with technology-diverse but disconnected 21st century society. It is doubtful anyone could have carried off this monologue better than Jay Brazeau.

Alison Green’s set is a classic dining room, very functional, but giving the impression of a much larger home. Murray Price’s use of music is intriguing but adds to the overall ambiance. Sheila White’s costumes, especially Sonia’s kitschy but stunning party outfit, help to visualize the transformation of the characters.     

The sell-out audience responded with enthusiasm throughout the two hour presentation.          

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage through April 19.

Photos by David Cooper.

About Our Contributor Michael Pigeon

Michael Pigeon

Michael is a long-time Vancouver resident who’s recently returned home after living abroad for over a decade. Michael enjoys reconnecting with Canadian culture through the Greater Vancouver theatre scene and being retired in a city that offers so many opportunities to live a healthy, engaged lifestyle.

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