Critical Writing

Theatre Review

‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’

Valerie Cook

Fully prepared to sit through a delightful, yet mediocre production, the University of Georgia Theatre Department’s production of ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ was a pleasant surprise. Fresh from Broadway, ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ is an absurd comedy written by playwright Christopher Durang. His works often deal with social issues through a comedic spin. Kristin Kundert, director of the UGA Theatre Department production of the play, brings this piece to the stage and explores the bleak themes of hopelessness and isolation in a comedic form that allows the audience a brief escape to laugh about the familiar sufferings of life.

‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ is centered on the eccentric lives of two siblings and their adopted sister. The character’s namesakes are inspired from Russian playwright Chekhov’s productions, notable for his dark themes including loss, self-pity and suffering. Chekhov often referred to his works as comedies, however Durang’s goal with ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ is adaptation on Chekhovs themes where one does not have to speculate as to whether it is a comedy.

The production won a Tony award for Best Play in 2013 and is filled with quips and fast paced acting. The UGA production lives up to the high bar that this two-act play set on Broadway, with developed characters and perfect comedic timing. Half of the cast—Katherine Butcher (Sonia), Larry Cox Jr. (Vanya), and Anna Pieri (Masha) are second-year acting students pursing M.F.A.s. These three are quite clearly the seasoned actors of the cast. Butcher was arguably the star of the show, with her phenomenal Maggie Smith impression and her ability to gain the empathy of the audience. Although the majority of the play was well cast, the weakest aspect would have to be the character of Spike (JD Heyers), who seemed to be cast solely on the basis that he was physically fit, as called for by the role. Although Heyers slowed the authenticity of the performance, it did little to ruin the production as a whole. I still found myself interested in the characters and their fates throughout the production.

After winding down into the depths of the UGA Fine Arts Building, the cozy atmosphere of the cellar theatre was not as dreary as I had imagined. The stage is nestled right up to the front row, which allows for the audience to feel fully immersed into the world unfolding before them. The entire play takes place in one setting—the sibling’s living room. Although I am not usually a fan of one-set productions, the scenic designer Eric Chamness did a fantastic job creating a visually appealing atmosphere that avoided a monotonous aspect. The set is filled with angles and slopes, adding a depth to the set that creates a dynamic environment for the actors. Costume design by Erica Manzano succeeds in capturing the personas of the characters, however it was not a highlight of the production by any means. At one point, the audience had a clear view up the actors clothing that could have been avoided an eliminated a distraction from an otherwise enchanting performance.

The UGA Theatre Department captures the essence of both Durang and Chekhov in this delightful comedy. It will be showing in the Cellar Theatre from February 16-26. At just under two hours, the production is enjoyable but not overly stimulating. There is no need to see this production more than once, however it is not an evening wasted. As director Kristen Kundert said of her intentions with the play, “enjoy the play, laugh, love, live.”