In a very Chekhovian turn of events, their day is interrupted by unexpected guests. Masha (Emma Kinane) arrives, both the sister of Vanya and Sonia and a famous actor. With her comes her boy toy, Spike (Simon Leary). Masha immediately takes over the house, demanding to be at the centre of everything. Kinane plays a flamboyant and flippant Masha, an effective and clear contrast to her reserved, homely siblings. Leary plays Spike as the very epitome of a self-centred, vain actor, never missing an opportunity to show off his body or accept a compliment. Luckily, Leary manages to be charming while self-indulgent, with a genuine lack of self-awareness.
Rounding out the cast are Erina Daniels as cleaning lady/soothsayer Cassandra and Harriet Prebble as Nina, a young would-be actor. Cassandra appears irregularly, a Durang addition straight from Greek tragedy rather than Chekhov. It’s a bizarre combination, and while Daniels attacks the role with energy and commitment I felt jarred by her appearance in the play. This might be intentional, since like the Greek Cassandra she disrupts the characters with her prophecies, but I often found it distracting. In particular, the choice to give Cassandra a Caribbean accent feels incongruous and unnecessary.
On the opposite end of the Chekhov spectrum is Nina, the character most similar to her namesake from The Seagull. Nina, innocent in dress and deportment, brings earnestness and naivete to the play. Prebble does well to keep her presence a pleasure rather than an annoyance.
The cast work well as an ensemble, balancing the tensions between their characters with aplomb. In general, they do well to keep the play from become too melodramatic or self-aware, although there are moments where the play teeters over the edge. Durang’s dialogue is rich, and when given too much emotion it becomes muddied and unclear. However, I imagine that this problem will dissipate as the actors find their stride with the rhythm of the play over its run.
The design team of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike have also done very good work. Sheila Horton has made excellent costuming choices, perfectly dressing the characters to match their personalities. In fact, Sonia and Vanya also seem to match their house, a touch that I found particularly compelling. John Hodgkin’s set, as previously noted, creates a perfect farmhouse environment in which to place the characters. Lisa Maule’s lighting design effectively helps create this mundane farmhouse world. Maule elegantly intimates space outside of the house with blue lighting representing both the sky and the much talked about pond in the distance. These surrealist touches – and lighting to heighten moments of Cassandra’s ‘prophecies’ – serve the production well. Oliver Devlin has done an excellent job designing the sound for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. His soundscape is naturalistic and nuanced, creating a subtle yet highly descriptive aural setting for the play.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a satirical and clever take on Chekhov transplanted to Pennsylvania. Before attending, it might be worth reading up on Chekhov – or reading Chekhov – to get the most out of the experience. It runs until the 3rd of September. For more information or to book go to www.circa.co.nz