Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike at Portland Center Stage

There was a moment Friday night in the middle of Portland Center Stage's performance of Vanya,
Sonia, Masha and Spike in which the woman in back of me screamed with laughter just behind my right ear. People say "screamed with laughter" like it's just a way of laughing, but this woman screamed-screamed. It almost scared me. I won't tell you what prompted that scream, but it was worth it.

As far as comedies go, Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike has it all. Well, maybe not a car chase, but it would be pretty hard to do a car chase on stage. But Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike has disillusionment, loss, regret... OK, that doesn't seem funny, now that I think of it. But, no really. Trust me. When Christopher Durang writes a play about disillusionment, loss and regret, and Portland Center Stage produces it, it's funny enough that you might have the woman behind you scream-laugh into your right ear. And anyway, Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike also has family dysfunction, existential angst, a grown man in a Seven Dwarves costume, a disconsolate talking molecule, a psychic housekeeper with a voo-doo doll, and a guy who takes his clothes off all the time.

If you're wondering about the crazy names, they're all from Chekhov. Well, except for Spike. Vanya, Sonia and Masha are siblings (all named after Chekhov characters by their theatrical parents) who share a Pennsylvania country house. Well, mostly Vanya and Sonia share it while Masha, the one who owns it, the movie star (every good family should have a movie star) only comes back here and there from Hollywood to throw their lives (comfortably seeped in ennui and self-pity) into chaos.

From left to right: Vanya (Andrew Sellon), Sonia (Sharonlee McLean), Masha (Carol Halstead).

There's also Spike (Nick Ballard), the attention-starved boy toy (who gave me what was my biggest laugh of the night), Nina (Eden Malyn), the bubbly, chipmunk-voiced young admirer of the movie star, and Cassandra (Olivia Negron), the telepathic housekeeper who speaks in a combination of poetic warnings, gibberish and malapropisms.

Durang's characters started out feeling very broad but seemed to gain dimension throughout the play, particularly Sonia who really kind of surprised me somewhere near the end when I stopped and realized she was so different from the woman I'd expected her to be at the start.

What didn't surprise me was how much I loved Sharonlee McLean's performance in Sonia's role. Do I talk about Sharonlee McLean all the time? I see her popping up all over the Portland theater scene, and whenever I see her name in a cast list, I know I'm going to be taken care of. I'm going to get an immensely satisfying performance whether it's comedy or drama or both. As Sonia, Sharonlee is hilariously deadpan, beautifully self-pitying, and as always, just the right amount of particular. She was wonderful imitating Maggie Smith in an oh la la red-sequined gown. And a beautifully subtle phone conversation she had during a quiet break in the action was probably my favorite part of the play.

The references to Chekhov were a lot of fun. Even if you don't know beans about Chekhov, and I don't know very many beans about Chekhov, you can catch his gist pretty quick after spending the evening with Vanya, Sonia and Masha. A favorite line: "If everyone took anti-depressants, Chekhov would have nothing to write about."

For me, a climactic sequence including a play-within-a-play and then a rant by one of the characters went on a little too long, but it was also a huge moment theatrically and an interesting turn for more than one of the folks on stage. Durang's farcical situations are designed to keep you laughing all night but he also uses them to plumb complex issues like people's responsibility to each other and the danger of wallowing in our own comfy personal hell.

Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike is playing through February 8th on the main stage at the Gerding Theater. If you go see it, tell me what you think! More info is here.

Photos are courtesy of Patrick Weishampel. The poster was designed by Julia McNamara and it has underwear on it.

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