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BWW Reviews: A Very Chekhovian VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE at Shakespeare & Co

Christopher Durang's play VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (Tony Award Best Play 2013) has become one of the most often produced plays of 2014 and is being staged by regional theatre companies across the country. It is about as perfect a play as can be imagined, combining elements of classic theatre for the cognoscenti while being easily accessible to the masses whose sole objective is for spending a pleasant evening at the theatre.

In the Berkshires, it is currently being performed by Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, using several of the seasoned actors of its resident company, supplemented by the addition of several talented and delightful new faces. The company has numerous productions playing in repertory in several locations on its campus during the summer, and continues into the fall and winter with a more limited schedule.

In other hands, VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE can easily slip into a coarse parody but here it is a valentine to Anton Chekhov, a love letter of a play that is enjoyable on several levels. Here's a comedy with both deep laughs and deep life lessons, one in which the well drawn characters re-learn what it means to be a family.

Durang plays with us, upsetting our expectations as arguments between sister and brother bring unrestrained laughter from the audience. There are plenty of witty digs and resentments between the siblings. Even the housekeeper - who just happens to be named Cassandra - gets into the act with predictions of doom and disaster if the squabbling sisters do not come to their senses. Vanya is the anchor, and half way into the play the character Nina flutters in and asks if she can call him "Uncle" Vanya since he is so nice. The family had scholarly parents who named them all after Chekhov's characters.

All of them - except Spike - are quite Chekhovian, but so is the pacing and direction by Matthew Penn. There are - gasp! - actual pauses in the course of the play which might be considered a no-no in our multi-tasking age, but here the art of contemplation is celebrated, not stifled, and they give us a chance to catch our collective breaths. Oddly it is these quiet moments which serve to bind the play together, as we mentally scope out the players and their next moves.

In his day Chekhov wrote a lot of comedy into his scripts, but it is in the style of a century ago when the laughs consisted more of wry smiles of recognition than boisterous belly laughs. Director Matthew Penn ups the Russian writer's game by lacing this solid tale with some real "I Love Lucy" moments. His skill at fast pacing and subtle mannerisms provide a hilarious combination of classic drama and contemporary comedy. He rewards the attentive theatre-goer with scenes such as Sonia (Tod Randolph) and Masha (Elizabeth Aspenlider ) blubbering profusely as they declare that "my life is over." The louder the sobs get, the more raucous the audience responds with laughter. With the two chewing the scenery together, fighting for Vanya to give them a hug, you could find this a favorite comedy scene, rivaling Lucy with the chocolates on the conveyor belt as the best comic moment of all time..

Shakespeare & Company has set a high standard for itself and so we have come to expect this company of actors to invest VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE with equal measures of craftsmanship and creativity. When Vanya (Jim Fragione) launches into his lament for the past, he shows us how a soliloquy should be delivered. Coming out of Vanya's earlier protective shell, Frangione launches into a once-people-wrote-letters-and-licked-stamps tirade that captures the past and takes an audience on a nostalgic "remeber when". It is one of Durang's most touching passages, one which most older theatre-goers will immediately relate to, but it demands a perfect reading to work. Fragione delivers.

Sonia (Tod Randolph) and Masha (Ellizabeth Aspenlieder) both have equally exquisite moments, Randolph when she dons a glorious sequined gown and attends a party as Dame Maggie Smith playing the evil witch, and Aspenlieder when she realizes her boy-toy Spike is easily distracted by a younger woman.

Fragione is relatively new to the Shakespeare & Company family of actors, as is Olivia Saccomanno. Her portrayal of Nina was so authentic and real as the charming girl from next door,that it somehow never felt like acting. This role can easily be overplayed, but Saccomanno is to be admired for sacrificing the spotlight to let the others shine. Spike comes to the family homested as Masha's boy-toy and as such is much larger than life. The buff Mat Leonard captured not only his character's physical stature, but also Spike's limitations of shallow intellect and oblivious braggadocio.

Cassandra (Angel Moore) has to be the juciest role of them all, ripe and ready for creativity as she goes about her household chores, cleaning up the family's messes along the way. This includes picking up Sonia's smashed coffee cups, casting spells, channeling predictions and even using a voodoo doll on Masha to try to get her to change her mind about selling the house.

VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is simply the best play the venerable Christopher Durang has written to date. It is an hour longer than most recent 90 minute comedies - and has a fifteen minute intermission on top of that . It doesn't feel long. That's attributable to its balanced sequence of scenes that alternate family dilemmas with comedic and romantic situation comedy, so the audience is kept totally engaged throughout. It also benefits from a masterful production at Shakespeare & Company where you can enjoy this fine acting in a theatre where you are never more than half a dozen rows away from the performers. It's a great evening out, one that's sure sure to delight Berkshire visitors and residents alike.

Shakespeare & Company presents VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE by Christopher Durang, Set Designer: Patrick Brennan; Lighting Designer: Matthew Miller; Costume Designer: Mary Readinger; Sound Designer / Composer: Ian Sturges Milliken; Stage Manager: Laura Kathryrne Gomez; Directed by Matthew Penn.
Cast: Elizabeth Aspenlieder (Masha), Jim Frangione (Vanya), Mat Leonard (Spike), Angel Moore (Cassandra), Tod Randolph (Sonia) and Olivia Saccomanno (Nina).
August 6- September 14, 2014 at the Elayne P. Bernstein Playhouse, Lenox, MA.

Photo by Kevin Sprague

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