The Shadow knows: putting the comedy back into Chekhov, and the new season

By Liz Nicholls,

“If everyone took anti-depressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about….”

The playwright himself called it “Chekhov in a blender.” But Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by the raucous American absurdist Christopher Durang (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, Laughing Wild, For Whom The Southern Belle Tolls), is so much more. Nothing less than “Greek tragedy to Neil Simon” is the scope of the 2013 Tony Award winner that is Shadow Theatre’s final production of the season, says director (and Shadow artistic director) John Hudson.

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He’s had his eye on the comedy for a while now. But its dimensions — a cast of six and “a major set” — put it beyond the resources of the company till more recently. In three years, says Hudson, “we’re up 35 per cent,” in attendance, subscriptions, and box office revenue. And that success makes Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike feasible.  

The production reunites onstage Coralie Cairns (who’s also the company general manager) and John Sproule, who have a long Shadow history. They’ve been onstage together in Shadow shows since 1991 and Shaun Johnston’s Catching The Train,  “our first production outside the Fringe,” as Hudson says. They’ve been Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing; they’ve been George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The list of shared Shadow curtain calls is long. 

In Durang’s comedy they play the bickering, regretful middle-aged siblings Vanya and Sonia, named for Chekhov characters by professor parents “active in community theatre.” They’ve put their  dreams on hold and stayed home at the family estate in the Pennsylvania boondocks. Meanwhile the third sibling Masha (Davina Stewart), whose movie star income funds the operation, has been “off gallivanting, having a life,” as Sonia puts it resentfully. The engine of the comedy is Masha’s return, accompanied by her latest boy-toy Spike (Jamie Cavanagh).

Hudson’s cast also includes Rachel Bowron and Michelle Todd. The production runs at the Varscona (10329 83 Ave. Thursday through May 19. Tickets:

In its upcoming season at the Varscona, Shadow premieres two new Canadian plays, one by an Edmonton actor/writer, the other by a Toronto-based actor-turned-writer who graduated from the U of A drama department. The latter is award-winning Nick Green. And his edgy new comedy Happy Birthday Baby J (Jan. 22 to Feb. 9), says Hudson, is all about “taking the piss out of political correctness.” A couple is celebrating the second birthday of their kid J, whom they’re are raising gender-free. Says Hudson, “you laugh out loud, and then you catch yourself: should I really be laughing?”

The Wrong People Have Money (April 29 to May 17), billed plausibly as “the funniest play ever written about moving Greenland,” is by Edmonton actor/playwright Reed McColm.  The comedy, nicely honed to a political edge, concerns a proposed capitalist venture to monetize Greenland by moving it farther south.  

Cairns co-stars with Nadien Chu in the inaugural production of Shadow’s upcoming season, directed by Nancy McAlear. The framework of The Roommate (Oct. 23 to Nov. 10), by the American writer Jen Silverman, is pure Odd Couple: two 50-ish women of widely contrasting personalities and habits — a Midwesterner and a worldly New Yorker on the rebound from her previous life — find themselves sharing a house. In Iowa.

Heisenberg (March 11 to 29) is by the English playwright Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), “a rock star in our industry” as Hudson puts it. The two-hander explores the unlikely relationship between an older man and a much younger woman, strangers who meet by chance in a railway station. Hudson describes it not as a love story but “a story of human necessity…. We need human contact. We’re not meant to be alone.” The Shadow production stars Amber Borotsik and Glenn Nelson. 

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