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BWW Review: Desert Rose's VANYA & SONYA & MASHA & SPIKE is Brilliantly Presented.

BWW Review: Desert Rose's VANYA & SONYA & MASHA & SPIKE is Brilliantly Presented.
Vanya (Jim Strait) and his sister, Masha
(Heather Brendel)

Desert Rose Playhouse has opened its 2017-18 season - its sixth - with a brilliant production of Christopher Durang's simultaneously literary and loony 2012 comedy, VANYA & SONYA & MASHA & SPIKE (VSMS), which Durang has likened to taking Chekhov scenes and characters and whirling them around in a blender.

There are numerous laughs on the way to an upbeat ending, but the play's humor is sarcastic and mostly dark. The plot involves siblings Vanya and Sonya, both in their fifties, whose actress sister, Masha, supports them while they live together in ennui in their childhood Bucks County, Pennsylvania home. Vanya and Sonya have sacrificed their own lives to care for their two late parents. Now, they while away their time drinking coffee and arguing. Masha, meanwhile, has become a wealthy screen star who escaped any responsibility for their parents' care but she, too, is unhappy. Masha arrives with boy-toy Spike in tow, and precipitates a crisis when she announces that she plans to sell the house out from under her brother and sister.

VSMS constitutes something of a departure for Desert Rose from its usual programs; the company generally presents plays targeted specifically to the LGBTQIA community, which this play is not. There is just one gay character, Vanya, and his sexual orientation is not directly relevant to the story. Instead, Masha's jealousy of Spike and bipolar Sonya's lack of any sexual outlet provide much of the dramatic tension. If it were not for the almost experimental treatment of Chekhov's themes and Durang's being gay, VSMS would, in my view, be tailor-made for mainstream, commercial theatres.

All the members of the six-person ensemble turn in excellent performances. Director Robbie Wayne (Desert Rose's Artistic Associate, and the production's scenic and costume designer) and his actors achieve just the right balance between the characters' being too understated and dripping with emotion, although I would have preferred a faster pace in spots. Jim Strait (Desert Rose's Artistic Director), plays opposite type, milking every bit of humor from the mostly serious role of Vanya, through his facial expressions and his generally deadpan delivery. His is one of two "normal" characters (the other being Nina, an aspiring actor artfully played by April Mejia). Mr. Strait portrays Vanya as a sometimes sarcastic peacemaker who usually manages to restrain his emotional side, but who can't stop his facial expressions and body language from giving away what he is thinking and feeling. When the vapid, dishonest Spike (Cody Frank) teases Vanya by showing off his perfect body, Mr. Strait generates laughs just by the looks he gives Spike.

BWW Review: Desert Rose's VANYA & SONYA & MASHA & SPIKE is Brilliantly Presented.
Bipolar Sonia (Adina Lawson)

Adina Lawson shows her usual depth in portraying Sonia's mood swings between anger and self-pity, and eventually, joy. She plays Sonia with honest energy (as my acting teacher would say), maturing from an overgrown child to a middle-aged, almost adult over the course of the play. Heather Brendel plays Masha, the narcissistic actress, as a woman who, in her own way, has as much trouble expressing her emotions appropriately as her sister, Sonia. During the second act, there is a perfectly played scene, both touching and hilarious, in which both the sisters cry. Alma Lacy (Cassandra, the aptly named psychic maid), a master at physical comedy, comes across as a hilarious steel magnolia, with her thick Southern accent and imperious manner. The scene where she performs a voodoo ritual is priceless.

The costumes, set, and lighting all contribute to the production's atmosphere. When Mr. Strait comes onstage dressed in a ridiculous outfit for the neighbor's costume party (no, I won't give away what kind of a costume), the moment is sublime. The living room set contains rattan furniture and a bannister made of tree branches. The paintings, afghans, and curtains all evoke a haimish, rustic home decorated decades years before and never touched.

Although Desert Rose pays each performer a small stipend, it is technically a community theatre. Nevertheless, this polished production is worthy of a professional company, in the way it mixes tragedy with humor. Don't miss this production of VANYA & SONIA & MASHA & SPIKE.

Tickets can be ordered online at www.desertroseplayhouse.org or by calling the box office at 760-202-3000. There is no service charge for Internet or phone orders. Season tickets are available as well as tickets for the current production. Performances are at 8 PM Friday and Saturday evenings and at 2 PM Sundays. Single-show tickets are $37 for evening performances and $34 for matinees. Prices include a $2 per ticket facility fee, which will go towards refurbishing the theater, including purchasing new seats.

The Desert Rose Playhouse is located just north of Frank Sinatra Boulevard, near the Emperor Buffet, at 69-620 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage, CA 92270. The Box Office opens at 4 p.m. before evening performances and at noon on Sundays.

Desert Rose is the Coachella Valley's only theatre company specifically oriented towards the local and tourist LGBTQIA communities, and to "gay-friendly" theatregoers. As a not-for-profit public benefit corporation, Desert Rose is required to raise a third of its annual budget from public support, as opposed to ticket sales. Donations are very welcome. Please mail checks to Desert Rose Productions, Inc., P.O. Box 2256, Cathedral City, CA 92235. To submit donations through Paypal, click the link located on the Desert Rose Web site at www.desertroseplayhouse.org/Pages/Sponsorship.aspx.

For an interview with Durang about VANYA & SONIA & MASHA & SPIKE, see the Huntington Theatre's web site, at www.huntingtontheatre.org/articles/iVanya--Sonia--Masha--Spikei1/Gallery/Melia-Bensussen-on-Awake--Sing/

The rest of Desert Rose's 2017-18 season consists of:

TIMES SQUARE ANGEL, a musical pastiche by Charles Busch, November 17 - December 17, 2017
Tough-As-Nails Night Club Star Irish O'Flanagan hosts Charles Busch's salute to holiday extravaganzas everywhere. The show combines elements of A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life with Busch's favorite 1940's movies and includes a variety of Yuletide musical numbers.

FIFTH OF JULY, by Lanford Wilson -- Desert Rose's Gay Heritage Production -- January 12 - February 4, 2018
Gay veteran Ken Talley lost his legs in Viet Nam. Now, Ken and his lover Jed live on the Talley Family Farm in Lebanon, Missouri and are visited by friends from Ken's college years and relatives with their own agendas. The talk is sharp, funny and revealing of lost hopes and dreams.

SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, by Tennessee Williams, March 9 - April 1, 2018
The classic horror story from Tennessee Williams of Sebastian Venable's life and death and his mother Violet's diabolical plan to stifle the truth about Sebastian by cutting the memories out of her niece Catherine's brain.

DARE, by Allan Baker, April 20 - May 13, 2018
The world premiere of an award-winning play by a fresh, literate and engaging Texas playwright, DARE is the story of an elderly gay man whose desire to die on his own terms sparks an impassioned challenge from his younger gay doctor. As funny as it is intimate, DARE is a touching reminder that the lessons of history must be part of any struggle for a better and more accepting world.

PHOTO CREDIT: Morningstar Productions


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From This Author Audrey Liebross