BWW Interviews: VANYA & SONIA & MASHA & Sass
The 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Play, Christopher Durang's VANYA & SONIA & MASHA & SPIKE, is inspiring laughs and sighs at the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium, directed by Twin Cities theatre veteran, Joel Sass.
The story centers on Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia, who are living a quiet life in the Pennsylvania farmhouse where they grew up, while their sister Masha travels the world as a movie star. Just as their cleaning woman issues a warning about terrible events in their future, Masha returns for an unannounced visit with her 20-something boy toy Spike in tow - and so begins an unforgettable weekend building to a fever pitch of rivalry, regret and racket.
Full disclosure to the readers: Sass and I used to work together in an office job in downtown Minneapolis in the mid-1990s, and I had the opportunity to see his early work, as well as have some great walks during lunch breaks. Fate and the Twin Cities small-world of theatre bring us together once again at BWW Minneapolis. I had an opportunity to talk to Sass about the show, his career trajectory and plans for the future.
Talk about your vision for VANYA, SONIA, MASHA & SPIKE (VSMS) -- did you follow the Broadway production in style or did you find ways to make it your own show? If so, in what ways?
Some plays invite (or even require) that the director and actors explore them in radically different ways...Shakespeare and Moliere are good examples of playwrights whose work can be produced and envisioned in endless variety. Christopher Durang's writing is highly specific, and comes alive most vividly when the director and actors are not treating it too seriously, but at the same time being careful to keep the characters and their needs/wants/desires "real"... I think most productions of VSMS, if they are going to be successful, will be shooting for this "sweet spot" in terms of tone and style--not because different theaters are seeking to emulate each other, but because there is a particular mixture of farce and drama necessary for this play to come alive. The setting is also very specific: Durang lays out very clearly the location and type of house the events occur in, the landscape which surrounds it, and even much of the physical and verbal game-playing the characters engage in. For all these reasons, I'm willing to wager that many productions will have found, through their individual rehearsal processes, similar responses to the play.
Do you think audiences need to come into VSMS with a background on Chekhov to get the references?
Prior knowledge or familiarity with Chekhov is not required at all in order to enjoy the play... It is not an "insider joke"; although there are a fair number of references and "Easter eggs" throughout the script, which get funnier if you know what is being spoofed! The Guthrie program has an excellent cheat sheet on Chekhov for anyone needing a 30-second intro to some of the characters and themes Durang is referencing in his own play.
There are many other references within VSMS from Durang's life, pop culture over multiple decades and other literary references. Do you think the range of things he worked into the play are meant to give any audience member of any age or background something to identify with? Do you find audiences connecting to the show through those ties?
In the play, three middle-aged siblings who have regrets about the way their lives have gone intermingle with a couple of very youthful (and attractive) 20-somethings...so generations are definitely colliding, with the characters finding friendship, love and conflict along the way... I do think Durang consciously populated his play with characters who are of different generations and who are at different points in their life's journey-with different hopes, fears and outlooks.
So, were the members of that family really crazy or just exaggerated? At least in Act 1, it seemed like it was the former. How did you and your cast choose how far to take the extremes of each character?
One family's "crazy" can be another family's "normal".... Some of us know that very well! Durang tends to write characters who are all highly eccentric and extroverted in their behavior and their speech...they sometimes say or do things most of us wouldn't. That's half the fun! In the case of this play, we have a family of siblings who were all raised in a household where their parents were theater professors and they were always performing: so everyone in that house was always probably competing for attention, was hyper-intelligent and perhaps a little ADHD in their manner. As for how our cast chose to create the characters, a lot of that was influenced by the farcical nature of the script itself: the formula for a farce requires that the people inhabiting the world have an exaggerated reality, with emotions and behavior that our slightly larger than "real life."
The rant of Vanya in Act 2 was pretty lengthy. What was your feeling about the amount of time he spent on that monologue and did you consider cutting it at all?
Vanya's rant come about because his character has always been, throughout the play, the most repressed character, the peace-keeper and apologist for everyone else's behavior. He's insecure about his own art and his own expression of thought. So when he is finally provoked past endurance by Spike's rudeness, a dam breaks inside him and so much that has been held back comes pouring out. This actually happens in "the real" play UNCLE VANYA, also... It's a testament to the actor playing Vanya that he gets applause nightly at the end of his rant. That said, a few people may find it long, but that is actually the point and the playwright's intention.
Why was the character of Cassandra worked into the story from your perspective? She's the only one that was not really tied to a Chekhov character in some way. What's the story of Cassandra and the voodoo?
Christopher Durang is a comic master of the verbal non sequitur--statements or utterances that don't have any logical connection to the statement that proceeded them. In a way, the character of Cassandra is a non-sequitur because on one hand it doesn't seem logical that in a play referencing Chekhov there would be a character spouting Greek prophesies. But, that is also what makes her very funny--in many of his plays, Durang will throw in someone or something from left field, to complicate the plot or relationships. Illogic is another key aspect of farcical comedy.
Did you happen to luck out when you cast Joshua James Campbell with the actor already in supreme physical condition or did you put him on a program to get him Spike-ready?
Josh Campbell, in addition to being an actor and director, has also worked as a certified personal trainer--so he's been fit for a long time! I know he has said he's been staying very diligent about keeping to his gym schedule in preparation for this role, but he (fortunately) didn't need any major interventions in diet or training.
How much of Spike's antics were created during your rehearsal process (improv, etc.) or were his striptease and other physical moments in the script?
The script specifies many of the physical games and comedy related to Spike: where his clothes come on/off, that there is a "reverse striptease," etc... We just built on those key moments and encouraged Josh to explore and improvise elsewhere in the script.
The play takes a turn after Vanya's play is read and his monologue takes off and lands... the formerly odd and at-odds siblings seem to meld back into, or perhaps for the first time into, a loving family unit. Do you think they all end up happily ever after? Do you want the audiences to leave knowing that these three people will all find love, happiness and contentment finally?
In the actual Chekhov plays the characters are frequently led on a journey which concludes with them realizing they are actually sadder than they thought they were at the beginning, or that their dreams of escape or change are going to remain unfulfilled... Durang is paying homage to Chekhov throughout his own play, but he gives his characters the blessing of actually getting some of their individual hopes realized--and that the trio of siblings (who have spent much of their lives alienated from one another) rediscover their shared roots and affection.
I recall you finding time to go through head shots and make production plans for upcoming shows as you and I worked in our office jobs many moons ago. You've come a long way since you were casting shows across from me in a field technology department of a financial services company... did you ever think you'd one day be directing on one of the main stages at the Guthrie Theater?
I grew up seeing shows at the Guthrie, and when I first started making theater in the Twin Cities in the early 1990s, all of us aspired to somehow being able to participate there in some way--it was an open question as to when and how that might ever transpire. At a certain point I just completely ignored that long-term goal and focused on the day-to-day challenge of learning how to direct and how to self-produce with my peers. Then one day, a decade later, I was given my chance to do something (Shakespeare's PERICLES) for "the big house."
What have the last 20 years (give or take) been like as you moved your career towards where you are today? How have you grown as an artist?
I wish I could say I felt significantly different--but I don't! I still feel as if I'm always striving to get better, to learn new ways of doing things. I suppose it is just a common phenomenon to be less conscious of your competencies, once you have developed them! I do know I'm fortunate that I was able to develop as a director while working on a wide range of plays and material, so I'm able to work on new plays, as well as classical texts, and I can find my way through a musical pretty well!
Are there any shows from your early years you'd like to revisit on a bigger stage, like the Guthrie's?
I've actually been able to revisit a few early shows on a much bigger scale... I had a theater company for eight seasons here in Minneapolis called Mary Worth Theater, and one of our biggest successes was a gory production of Shakespeare's TITUS ANDRONICUS...in 2010 I was able to do a new, much more lavish production of that play for the California Shakespeare Theater in San Francisco. It was a fantastic experience, although the key to its success remained in hewing to the approach I first defined when doing that tiny, low-budget version here in Minneapolis, with a team of fabulous actors.
Ah, I recall that bloody production of TITUS in Minneapolis--I have vivid memories of being glad I was not in the front row of the house and watching you mop up stage blood at intermission.
Where will you be in the next five years? What shows do you plan to direct, or what theatres are you planning (or hoping) to work with?
I'm not sure where I will be in five years... I suppose I am considered "mid-career" at this point, and while I really enjoy the flexibility and variety that comes with freelancing, at a certain point the notion of running an institution becomes attractive. We'll have to see what happens!
VANYA & SONIA & MASHA & SPIKE continues at the Guthrie Theater through Aug. 31. Tickets available at www.guthrietheater.org or 612.377.2224 or toll-free at 1.877-44STAGE.
Read BWW Contributing Editor Jill Schafer's review here: /minneapolis/article/BWW-Reviews-The-Guthrie-Theaters-VANYA-AND-SONIA-AND-MASHA-AND-SPIKE-Entertains-with-Deliciously-Over-the-Top-Comedic-Performances-20140804
Photo:Joel Sass. Photo by Mike Habermann.