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BWW Review: MCT Channels a Crazy Chekhov in Durang's VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE

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Photo Credit: Paul Ruffolo

What happens in Bucks County, Pennsylvania-Upper Back Eddy, Bucks County to be specific? Playwright Christopher Durang called Bucks Country home and set his award winning comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike in their country house right there. A place where almost nothing happens except a blue heron visits a pond on the property each morning that Vanya and Sonia wait for while drinking their morning coffee. Milwaukee Chamber Theater (MCT) opens their 2016-2017 season in the Cabot Theatre with this 2012 Tony Award for Best Play that captures three siblings, one adopted, contemplating their midlife regrets and revelations. Or as Durang would say: "Their hidden reservoirs that haven't been tapped."

While Anton Chekhov, an author and playwright who transformed the course of modern literature, actually has little to do with the plot, each sibling was named for one of his characters. The sibling's parents were Chekhov and community theater fans, and hence, numerous references to Chekhov and his plays float through the dialogue--Including Sonia's reference to call the eight or ten cherry trees on their Bucks County property "a cherry orchard" to reference one of Chekhov's most famous plays.

This routine, day to day life for Vanya and Sonia, recently changed because they finished caring for their aged parents while their older sister Masha lived her dream working as a film star and also paying the bills for the historical homestead. Each sibling regrets something in his/her past, even the rich and famous Masha, because she really desired to be a great classical stage actress. Add in a quirky housekeeper connected to voodoo, Cassandra, and an up and coming young actress, Nina, together with Masha's lover, Spike, and the mayhem over one night and day ensures. Associate Artistic Director Marcella Kearns directs the production succinctly and with comic success. By adding her own intuition about timing into the play. Kearns often opens up opportunities for more humor to happen on stage.

MCT Artistic Director C. Michael Wright gives Vanya a sweet touch to the brother trying to cope with a bipolar, semi-depressed Sonia, someone who might throw a coffee cup or two at the wall. That is, until the final scenes, when Vanya's emotions explode about how he really views contemporary society, and remembers actually licking postage stamps to place on snail mail. Vanya's vivid recollections of the past will move the audience into truly wondering about the future. Jenny Wanasek also transforms the adopted sister Sonia into a shimmering study "of the possibilities ahead," at any age, especially her age, somewhere in the mid-fifties. Her role requires an array of emotions, and this 2016 Ruth Schudson Leading Lady Honoree traverses the acting territory with ease.

The third sibling, Masha, might easily tumble into a caricature of the waning and no longer youthful film star genre. Veteran Carrie Hitchcock instead seeks warmth and introspection for her famous movie star role so her character transitions into an understanding of what she's accomplished instead of what she's leaving behind, including her five failed marriages. Hitchcock pairs well with her nubile lover, pretty boy, JJ Phillips. The two spice up life in Bucks County, at least for 24 hours, making the other two siblings aware of what they are missing.

Mix into this quartet Rána Roman, who plays the housekeeper Cassandra with exuberant charm and scene stealing assurance. Her impossible incantations play to the unsettled nature in the house befitting her namesake Cassandra, an ancient god who had a sixth sense, yet was cursed because no one would believe her. Do they believe her senses in this house? Beware of what happens to "Hootie Pie" the entire performance, how Durang instills this subplot into the play with great effect right up into the final scenes. To round out the cast, Elodie Senetra gives her character Nina a serene sensitivity, while also enamored with Masha's fame and supportive to Vanya's absurdist play about a lonely molecule.

Within two acts, two plus hours of laugh out loud theater, these siblings represent bits and pieces of every family coming to terms with generational shifts, and looking ahead at what they desire most for their future. Ask what would constitute "really living" in the years ahead, as those in the audience might ask when facing the same dilemmas. Underscoring the humor, these Chekhovian namesakes radiate the meaning to "shared memories" and the bliss in seeking any lost opportunities from wherever and whenever they arrive.

In Durang's play, one night at a costume party allows the siblings to view themselves in alternate personalities, whether Snow White, Maggie Smith, or Doc, the Dwarf. These fantasies lead to new personal fulfillment in an absolutely beautiful country home designed by Brandon Kirkham and further defined by Alex Tecoma's costumes. MCT's hilarious Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike awakens the possibilities in the audience, wherever and whenever they are in life as well. As they leave the intimate Cabot Theatre, may they consider how to laugh, live, love and light up the days ahead after an evening tasting a bit of Chekhov served with a side of slightly crazy. But then, who isn't just this side of slightly crazy?

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike in the Cabot Theatre at the Historic Third Ward's Broadway Theatre Center through August 28. For further information, special events, or to purchase tickets, please call: 414.291.7800 or www.milwaukeechambertheatre.com


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