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Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and
A Winter's Tale

Also see Jeanie's review of Les Misérables


A Wonderful Mash up of Chekhovian Themes in Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike


Anthony Fusco, Caroline Kaplan, Lorri Holt and Mark Junek
Photo: kevinberne.com
Berkeley Rep brings Christopher Durang's Tony Award winning Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike to town a little over a month after the close of its Broadway run. This fast-paced comedy has an impudent admiration for Chekhov's comedic dramas. It's a proud, unashamed, glorious mix of Chekhov themes and representations of Chekhov characters with affirmations of Greek tragedy, the television series "Entourage," Hollywood, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Beatles, the Oresteia, Maggie Smith and "Ozzie and Harriet." Durang gets all of this, and more, into a two hour and thirty minute play with a laugh a minute.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike centers on middle-aged siblings Vanya and Sonia who have been living their whole lives in the house that their deceased parents owned. They never left home and now they just sort of hibernate in their pajamas with no real future. Their sister Masha, who made a name for herself in Hollywood horror films, arrives with her boy toy Spike and her smartening egoism ruffles the feathers of her brother and sister. Masha has the deed to the house and announces that the horror films in which she starred have dried up and she intends to sell the house. So, Vanya and Sonia are facing a future that is even drearier than their lackluster past.

Also coming into this crazy mix is housekeeper Cassandra, who has forewarning powers just like her Greek namesake, and visiting neighbor and aspiring actress Nina.

The cast is outstanding and their timing is impeccable for this fantastic farce of Chekov plays. Sharon Lockwood as the middle-aged, morbidly depressed Sonia gives a superb hilarious performance, especially when she appears onstage dressed in a sequined evening gown with a shimmering tiara on her head and radiating self-confidence about going to a costume ball. She speaks in a Maggie Smith voice about going to the Oscars to pick up the prestigious award. It is a tour de force of comedy acting.

Anthony Fusco is excellent as Vanya. With stammering, funny zest, he stops the show with an impassioned, exhausting speech about the besmirched nature of contemporary culture. His timing is flawless and his performance is certainly a highlight of the comedy. Lorri Holt holds her own amid this skilled comic company playing the fading Hollywood movie star Masha. Her take on the absurd narcissism of the character is perfect. The audience loves every condescending swipe at her brother and sister.

New York actor Mark Junek leaps about the stage athletically as the egocentric Spike. It's a terrific charismatic portrayal of a young airhead who almost landed a role in "Entourage 2," which he mentions many times. And there is Heather Alicia Simms as Cassandra (she understudied the role in New York) who also stops the show with her vividly wild visions. Rounding out the cast is New York actress Caroline Kaplan beautifully playing the ultimate aspiring actress Nina who swoons for Spike. She reminded me of a young Grace Kelly.

Nicholas Martin directs with wonderful subtlety, and Kent Dorsey has devised a super detailed Bucks County upscale living room set. Costumes, especially the spectacular gown worn by Sonia going to the ball, are magnificent.

The sincerity of Durang's affection for his unconventional characters and the goodness of his discontent with the presence lends the otherwise silly plot a sense of significance.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays through October 25th at the Berkeley Rep Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. Coming up next is Hershey Felder's The Pianist of Willesden Lane opening October 25 and running through December 8th.


An Inventive Production of A Winter's Tale

California Shakespeare Theatre concludes their 2013 season with a production of William Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale running through October 20th. Director Patricia McGregor and choreographer Paloma McGregor have reunited members of the cast of the 2012 smash hit Spunk in this romantic tale of redemption.

This marks the fourth time I have seen the rarely performed gem, including a Royal Shakespeare production with Judi Dench in Stratford-upon-Avon, two Oregon Shakespeare productions, and a Marin Shakespeare Company production several years ago. This production is entirely different from the others I have seen. You could say it is a cool production enlivened with some swinging music. There are indelible moments of eye-popping visuals.

A Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's last works, and the play is often considered challenging so it is rarely staged. Early scenes signal tragedy as King Leontes (L. Peter Callender) exiles his pregnant wife Hermione (Omoze Idehenre), speciously believing her to be guilty of an affair with his good friend Polixenes (Aldo Billingslea). He not only orders her death but the death of her soon to be born daughter. But, sometimes, orders of the Kings are not carried out. His subject takes the newborn baby and abandons her in a forest. Shepherd (L. Peter Callender) finds the baby and raises her as his own.

The second act takes place sixteen years later when the young Perdita (Tristan Cunningham) grows up and, somehow, Florizel, a prince of Bohemia, becomes involved. A lot of inane things happen in the second act including a statue coming to life. Whereas the first act is performed mostly in black and gray costumes, the second act looks more like Haight-Ashbury during the era of flower power in the 1960s with the excitedly flamboyant, carnival costumes of Katherine Nowacki. There is a lot of music in this act, from hip hop to folk ballads to blues sung mostly by Christopher Michael Rivera who plays Autolycus. There is even an audience sing along to one of Shakespeare's lines ("Jog on, jog on, the foot-path way, / And merrily hent the stile-a: / A merry heart goes all the day, / Your sad tires in a mile-a.")

L. Peter Callender gives another intense performance as Leontes as he descends into insane jealousy in the first act. In the second act he morphs beautifully into the soft-spoken shepherd who finds the newly born child. Aldo Billingslea is excellent as the falsely accused Polixenes. His facial expressions look natural in one of the most motivated and madcap sequences in this production. He gets one of the biggest Shakespearean stage directions, "Exeunt, pursued by a bear," which he has the physique and behavior to pull off.

Margo Hall is outstanding as Paulina, especially in her ferocious face-off with Callender's Leontes, defending her queen, to playing a clown babbling nonsense in the second act. Tyee Tilghman gives a fervent performance as Florizel. Omoze Idehenre gives a striking, passionate performance as Queen Hermione in the first act. Christopher Michael Rivera is charismatic as the mischievous thief Autolycus. Tristan Cunningham exquisitely portrays Perdita in the second act. She also dances and sings in this second act, kicking up her heels. Rounding out this cast of splendid actors are Mackenzie Kwok and Veronica Larkin playing various roles along with the charming young Akili Moree playing Mamillius.

The Michael Locher sets are interesting, especially in the second act, with a large, red, multipurpose tower dominating the set and a caravan that one would see used by a group of gypsies. Lighting by Russell H. Champa is spectacular, especially the various colored lights that flood the foliage in the back of the outdoor stage.

A Winter's Tale does not have swordfights, dramatic love scenes, or powerhouse speeches, but the last act is a lot of fun. It's cool swinging high camp, Shakespeare-style. This production plays through October 20th at Bruins Amphitheatre just off Highway 29 past the tunnel in Orinda. For tickets call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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