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Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Novato Theater Company

Also see Richard's review of The Mystery of Irma Vep

Front: Jesse Lumb (Spike). Behind: Jennifer Reimer (Sonia), David Shirk (Vanya), Robyn Wiley (Masha).

Theatre is a communal effort. Even when it’s not “community” theater, no production – even a solo show – is ever accomplished without some sort of joint effort. Even if a solo performer handled all the other duties (set, lighting, sound, etc.) it’s not theatre without an audience to experience it. Because of this, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, currently playing at Novato Theater Company, illuminates a delightful dichotomy: a communal effort that’s all about self-absorption, ego and narcissism.

It’s quite a challenge to make comedy out of misery (without the tempering assistance of time), but playwright Christoper Durang (author of “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You,” “Beyond Therapy,” and “Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them” among others) manages to pull it off. Durang strikes a perfect balance of classic elements of theatre – from the Greeks to Chekov – with a very contemporary tone, full of irony and sardonic wit.  There’s a fair bit of silliness here, so if that throws you off, you might want to pass.  But if you can handle even a little absurdity, I think you’ll have a fantastic time. Even though this production is still finding its feet, and the cast hasn’t quite got Durang’s comic rhythms right yet, there’s much to recommend here.

The play begins simply, in Chekovian fashion, with a pair of siblings (Vanya and Sonia) sitting in the morning room of their childhood home, looking out over a pond in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, drinking coffee, bickering, waiting for the blue heron to show – and seething with (mostly) unexpressed rage and disappointment at where they find themselves: aging, alone, loveless, impoverished, and stuck inside their own experience. Their part-time housekeeper, Cassandra (Sumi Narendran), can – like her namesake – see the future but is cursed by the fact that no one believes her prophecies.

Chaos arrives in the form of Masha, Vanya and Sonia’s sister, a wildly-successful Hollywood actress, who has come bearing not gifts, but bad news: because her career has taken the tiniest of downward turns, she is planning to sell the family home (for which she has been paying), effectively threatening to put her brother and sister out on the street. As Masha, Robyn Wiley does an excellent job of inhabiting a selfish, egotistical, clueless to the needs of others (“I don’t wait for people – people wait for me.”) Hollywood star. When she dons a Snow White costume (for a party that evening), Disney’s gentle princess suddenly becomes an evil queen – another delightful dichotomy from Durang.

Sonia, as played by Jennifer Reimer, brings a wonderful sort of beat-down, hang dog attitude to the role. She shuffles along, blithely accepting her lot – but giving us glimpses of the rage and disappointment she feels at how her life is turning out. David Shirk’s Vanya is a good match for her. He’s gentle and loving, but also wears his sadness and resignation on his sleeve. Shirk also gets the best monologue in the play, a marvelous act two rant on how technology like Twitter and Facebook and 500+ channel cable TV is isolating us far more than it is uniting us.

But the best performance may be from the actress with the smallest role: Keara Reardon as Nina, a local girl who threatens Masha’s hold on Spike (Jesse Lumb), her much-younger boy toy. Reardon brings a wonderful guileless charm and innocence to Nina, who is already the most lovable and least self-absorbed of the characters.

Mark Clark’s set design is lovely, setting the scene of a Bucks County country house with great verisimilitude. Praise also to costume designer Marie Maier, especially for the ensembles she created for Masha’s fading starlet, and to whomever was responsible for props, making sure there was an actual shopping bag from the regional supermarket chain, Wawa.

Though director Buzz Halsing gets the show off to a shaky start with clumsy pacing, not giving us time to savor Durang’s biting wit, by intermission he and his cast seem to find their feet, and the show trots right along in act two, until the characters finally realize their individual problems aren’t the only thing that matters in the world. I’m hopeful that as the run goes on, and the director and cast get more feedback from the responses from different audiences, that their timing and pace will only improve.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike runs through September 20 at the Novato Theater Company, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $27 general , $24 for seniors and students, and $12 for children. Tickets and additional information are available at or by calling 415-883-4498.

Photo: Mark Clark

Be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Patrick Thomas

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