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PlayMakers Rep’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” Starts Slowly, But Soon Gets Up to Speed

Julie Fishell and Jeffrey Blair Cornell star as Masha and Vanya in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Julie Fishell and Jeffrey Blair Cornell star as Masha and Vanya in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Christopher Durang’s 2013 Tony Award®-winning play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, may not be vintage Durang — because it never quite achieves the sublime silliness of his choicest comic creations — but this slow-starting comedy does provide a fine springboard for PlayMakers Repertory Company, gifted guest director Libby Appel, and a cast of zanies to take PRC patrons for a merry romp through a blighted landscape fraught with ennui and peopled with has-beens and never-weres. Durang’s witty riff on the plays and characters and dialogue of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) may not hit on all cylinders, but its fitful flights of foolishness — viewed this past Sunday afternoon — proved a perfect antidote for a “flagship university” boarded and mercilessly pillaged the day before by those pesky football Pirates of East Carolina University.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike opens with 57-year-old frustrated would-be playwright Vanya (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) commiserating with his morose 52-year-old adopted stay-at-home sister Sonia (Julia Gibson). Having sacrificed their youth and their career ambitions to serve as live-in caretakers for their aged and increasingly infirm parents, they are a pitiful pair, stuck in a Grand Canyon-sized rut. Indeed, they are veritable poster children for the Unfulfilled Life.

Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Julia Gibson star as Vanya and Sonia in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Julia Gibson star as Vanya and Sonia in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Sonia and Vanya are living proverbial “lives of quiet desperation” until an ill wind — in the form of their completely self-absorbed once-glamorous-but-now-fading movie-star sister Masha (Julie Fishell) — blows in from the Left Coast, with her latest boy toy Spike (Christian Daly) in tow. During her whirlwind visit, Hurricane Masha plans to meet with a Bucks County, PA realtor about selling the family farmhouse that she alone inherited out from under Vanya and Sonia. Piling humiliation upon betrayal, Masha also expects her soon-to-be-homeless siblings to don dwarf costumes and accompany her — dressed as “Disney’s Snow White” — to a costume party at the nearby Pipersville house once occupied by the legendary wit and Algonquin Round Table mainstay Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)!

PlayMakers Rep mainstay Jeffrey Blair Cornell, who plays the long-suffering Vanya, is delightful as a mouse who finally roars; and Julia Gibson sparkles as the gloomy spinster Sonia, who finally discovers a rebellious bone in her body and discards her (literally) dopey Masha-aggrandizing dwarf costume in favor of the ritzy sequined threads of the evil queen — Snow White’s envious stepmother and nemesis. PRC veteran Julie Fishell plays Masha as an irrestible, but increasingly insecure force all too aware that her career doldrums and subsequent money troubles likely spell the end of a promising and lucrative career on stage and screen.

Arielle Yoder (left), Julie Fishell (center), and Christian Daly star as Nina, Masha, and Spike in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Arielle Yoder (left), Julie Fishell (center), and Christian Daly star as Nina, Masha, and Spike in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Christian Daly is a pip as the amiable, hunkish, uninhibited, and — as the audience will soon find out — fickle Spike; and Arielle Yoder is charming as the innocent-but-not-naive girl-nextdoor and aspiring actress Nina. But it is Kathryn Hunter-Williams as Vanya and Sonia’s psychic housekeeper Cassandra who steals the show with her hilarious prophetic outbursts, such as “Beware Hootie Pie!” (No one quite says the sooth — or chews the scenery — quite like Hunter-Williams.)

Although it takes a little too long for this comic locomotive to leave the station, director Libby Appel soon gets this madcap comedy up to speed — and keeps it there. Scenic designer Michael J. Dempsey also deserves kudos for his finely timbered farmhouse interior set, and costume designer Jan Chambers has dressed the PlayMakers Repertory Company cast in an eye-catching array of humdrum everyday wear, glad rags, and silly party costumes that are a hoot all by themselves.

Kathryn Hunter-Williams plays Cassandra and Jeffrey Blair Cornell plays Vanya in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Kathryn Hunter-Williams plays Cassandra and Jeffrey Blair Cornell plays Vanya in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (photo by Jon Gardiner)

SECOND OPINION: Sept. 22nd Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=6971; Sept. 22nd Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) review by Robert McNeely (who awarded the show 4 stars): http://www.dailytarheel.com/blog/canvas/2014/09/vanya-and-sonia-and-masha-and-spike-brings-theatric-hilarity-toprc and Sept. 17th preview by Robert McNeely: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2014/09/tony-award-winning-comedy-vanya-and-sonia-and-masha-and-spike-play-opens-tonight; Sept. 22nd Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/09/22/4173233/playmakers-hilarious-riff-on-chekov.html; Sept. 19th Chapel Hill, NC WCHL Chapelboro interview with Julie Fishell, conducted by Aaron Keck: http://chapelboro.com/news/arts/playmakers-opens-season-chekov-twist/; and Sept. 18th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/entertainment/x711469346/A-comedy-inspired-by-Chekhov (Note: You must subscribe to read this article). (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Sept. 13th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2014/09/prcs-season-opener-is-the-2013-tony-winning-comedy-vanya-and-sonia-and-masha-and-spike/.)

 

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23-26, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 27, 2 p.m. Sept. 28, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30-Oct. 3, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $15-$45 ($10 UNC students and $12 other college students), with discounts for UNC faculty and staff and U.S. military personnel, except $15 (general admission) Tuesday Community Night performances.

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/single.

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-843-2311, prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.

SHOW: http://www.playmakersrep.org/vanyaandsoniaandmashaandspike and https://www.facebook.com/events/699129406808612/.

NEWS RELEASE: http://uncnews.unc.edu/2014/09/08/PlayMakers-opens-season-sept-17-christopher-durangs-tony-award-winning-comedy/.

2014-15 SEASON: http://www.playmakersrep.org/season1415.

PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company.

VENUE: http://playmakersrep.org/aboutus/paulgreen.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo.

NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.

NOTE 2: There will be FREE post-show discussions with members of the creative team following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 24th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28th, performances.

NOTE 3: There will be an All-Access Performance at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 30th.

NOTE 4: There will be an Open Captioning Performance on Saturday, Sept. 27th (for more information, click http://playmakersrep.org/outreach/allaccess/opencaption).

NOTE 5: The Lucy Daniels Foundation and the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society will sponsor FREE post-show “Mindplay” discussions after the 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5th, performances.

OTHER LINKS:

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (2012 Off-Broadway and 2013 Broadway comedy): http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=494052 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanya_and_Sonia_and_Masha_and_Spike (Wikipedia).

Christopher Durang (Montclair, NJ-born playwright and screenwriter): http://www.christopherdurang.com/ (official website), http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=4832 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0243837/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Durang (Wikipedia).

Libby Appel (PRC guest director and Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director emerita): http://www.playmakersrep.org/aboutus/artist.aspx?id=9eee69fc-aef4-43a3-90ba-0e9ca24be1f6 (PlayMakers Rep bio), https://www.osfashland.org/en/artist-biographies/artistic-staff/libby-appel.aspx (Oregon Shakespeare Festival bio), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libby_Appel (Wikipedia).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Robert W. McDowell has written articles for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, CVNC, and Triangle Arts and Entertainment, all based in Raleigh. He edits and publishes two FREE weekly e-mail newsletters. Triangle Review provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of local performing-arts events. (Start your FREE subscription by e-mailing robertm748@aol.com and typing SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) McDowell also maintains a FREE list of movie sneak previews. (To subscribe, e-mail robertm748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.)

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