Theatre review of Alberta Theatre Projects' Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; September 15 - October 3, 2015 at Martha Cohen Theatre in Calgary, AB.

The cast of Alberta Theatre Projects' production of "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Photo Credit: Kenneth Locke

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike will leave you ROTF! 

The great Charlie Chaplin once said, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it.” Alberta Theatre Projects’ season opening play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, written by Christopher Durang, reminds us how sometimes the best comedy lives in our own homes, and by learning to embrace the humourous aspects of our lives, we’re able to leave the past behind and move on.

The plot revolves around middle-aged siblings Vanya (Christopher Hunt) and Sonia (Lois Anderson), who realize that having spent the past 15 years living at home caring for their now deceased parents, their lives now seem bleak and unpromising. When their dramatic housekeeper Cassandra (Nadien Chu) storms in to prophesize eerily strange times ahead, a sense of great uneasiness looms as Vanya and Sonia’s sister, Masha (Sonja Smits), arrives for a visit.

From left to right: Christopher Hunt (Vanya), Lois Anderson (Sonia), Sonja Smits (Masha) and Spike (Stafford Perry). Photo credit: Alberta Theatre Projects

Masha, a Hollywood film star in her 40’s arrives in grand style with her young boy toy, Spike (Stafford Perry). Tensions among Vanya, Sonia and Masha run high as their personality clashes strike, while Spike, runs around in his underwear, showing off his Greek god physique.

It isn’t long before Spike meets Nina (Lara Schmitz), a young actress visiting her aunt and uncle in the neighbourhood, much to the distaste of a jealous Masha. The drama continues to climb as the characters prepare for a neighbourhood costume party, where Masha plans to reign supreme as Snow White. However, surprises lie ahead as the group dons their costumes.

Leyshon has assembled a wonderful ensemble of actors who delightfully bring Durang’s characters to life. As Vanya, Hunt gives his character just the right amount of cynicism, mixed with a bit of sweetness. In the role of Sonia, Anderson first wins us over with her brilliant comic delivery, then touches us with her character’s insecurity. Smits is a treat to watch in the role of Masha. She has the aging Hollywood diva persona down pat, yet she also brings warmth and kindness to her role.

Perry is hilarious as Masha’s young boyfriend, Spike. His over-the-top performance is spot on for his dim-witted character. As well, his outrageously fit physique, complete with a stunning six-pack and no body fat, may inspire theatregoers in Calgary to give up carbs and hit the gyms and yoga studios.

Smits and Perry as Masha and Spike. Photo credit: Kenneth Locke

Rounding out the ensemble are Schmitz and Chu. Schmitz is lovely as the young girl-next-door, Nina. Chu tackles the difficult role of Cassandra extremely well, reciting Greek prophesy after prophesy with an endless amount of delightful melodrama.

With the shining array of personalities on stage, director Leyshon has done an excellent job staging the production. The rhythm of the comedic timing among the ensemble chimes smoothly, and Leyshon has creatively incorporated the theatre aisle as part of the drama, increasing the set space and intimacy of the production.

Set designer Catherine Hahn has done a marvelous job. Hahn has created the interior of a home that is strikingly beautiful, and possesses charm and a mystique from memories of years gone by. The piles of books on high bookshelves, vintage fireplace and mantle, and dusty framed photographs scattered about, draws the audience into a home ridden with history, tears and joy. 

At its heart, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a comedy. Yet it evokes references to Russian playwright Anton Chekov throughout, known for his dramatic works about pain and suffering. In fact, within the play, Vanya, Sonia and Masha reflect on how their university professor parents, who did community theatre on the side, named them after Chekov characters.

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is one awkward and hilarious family gathering. Photo credit: Kenneth Locke

This reference to Chekov is what makes this play ironic, hilarious and intelligent at the same time. Similar to the characters Chekov wrote about, the characters in this play find themselves in less than ideal circumstances.

However, in contrast to Chekov’s characters, Vanya, Sonia and Masha are able to make light of their situations and find the strength they need to move on with their lives. They show us that as humans, we need to take moments to laugh at life’s comedic moments, and appreciate who we have at your side.

It was a pleasure watching Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play, come to life on the Martha Cohen stage. Congratulations to Alberta Theatre Projects on an excellent season opening!