A kickstart for Chekhovian ennui: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Shadow. A review.

Coralie Cairns, Davina Stewart, John Sproule, Jamie Cavanagh in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“Oh let’s not talk. I’ll keep my sadness to myself,” says a mopey sister to a melancholy brother near the start of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

Yeah, right. Like that’s gonna happen.

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As the title suggests, the glum, bickering 50-something siblings we meet in Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winner, the season finale production at Shadow Theatre, are in a Chekhov mashup. You know, middle-aged disappointment, Russian-style ennui, under-achievement, regret, missed chances, the ineffectual pursuit of lost causes.…

So … comedy, right?

Yup. As the Shadow production demonstrates, there’s spirited fun to be had hanging with dispirited characters whose world view is bleak. And oddly enough their Chekhovian ambivalence actually accommodates Durang’s exasperated, ranting kind of absurdism (though you might not predict it), in this surprisingly mellow and strangely upbeat comedy. Or maybe it’s a question of Durang reflecting on the earlier Durang of such gleefully splenetic outbursts as Sister Mary Explains It All For You, Laughing Wild, Betty’s Summer Vacation.

Anyhow, even nostalgia is depressing in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Sonia fondly remembers dear old dad in his glory days before he lost his mind, his special endearment (“he called me his little artichoke” and he even liked artichokes!), and the heartwarming fact “he never molested me.” Vanya remembers as if it were yesterday incurring dad’s wrath, at the tender age of seven, when he didn’t know who wrote The Imaginary Invalid

Anyhow, with differing degrees of resentment and resignation, Vanya and Sonia have put their lives on indefinite hold in the family home in the Pennsylvania outback, taking care of aging, then dying, now dead, parents, profs who’d had an unfortunate affinity for community theatre.

And these days they occupy themselves arguing whether 10 cherry trees constitutes an orchard. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is peppered liberally with every sort of Chekhov allusion, should you be of a mind to savour them, as scrambled among the characters.

A beautiful, comfy, bookish sort of prof house is before us, in every detail, in Daniel Van Heyst’s outstanding design. And you’ll laugh out loud when you see Leona Brausen’s costumes, starting with Vanya’s nightshirt and Sonia’s defeated-person’s bathrobe and Crocs. Coralie Cairns and John Sproule play along the whole keyboard of sighs, accompanied by Sonia’s cadenzas of tearful Chekhovian asides: “I’m in mourning for my life,” “I haven’t lived,” “I hate my life.”

Their only companion, is a housekeeper Cassandra (Michelle Todd), much given, as per her Greek namesake, in making dire prophecies at length and top volume: “Beware … everything!” 

Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux.

The unexpected arrival of a third sibling, Masha (Davina Stewart), a glam movie star on the wane, in the company of her latest boy-toy lover Spike (Jamie Cavanagh), is a boot to the butt of this status quo. True, Masha has been off “having a life,” as Sonia fumes. On the other hand, her lucre has been footing the bills back home, and now, a little cash-strapped, she wants to sell it.

Masha, who’s an adrenalized whack-job version of the grand dame actress Arkadina from Chekhov’s The Seagull, is famous — about to be formerly-famous — for her starring role as a nymphomaniac psycho serial murderer in the hit Sexy Killer franchise. And you can see in Stewart’s go-for-the-gusto performance — all tigerish appetite and rampaging narcissism — how she might have landed the role. Cavanagh is very funny as the preening but guileless bimbo Spike, whose solution to everything is to strip, and be admired. He is genuinely oblivious to middle-aged regret.

Rachel Bowron and Davina Stewart. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux

When a beguiling neighbour, an adorable aspiring young actress named, yes, Nina (the very amusing Rachel Bowron) arrives, a further rattling of cages happens. Masha is threatened, Vanya is cajoled into a reading of his post-apocalyptic play (à la Constantin’s experimental avant-garde play in The Seagull) and it’s a corker. Oh, and did I mention the costume party next door, in which all family members and assorted hangers-on are assigned (by Masha, of course) supporting roles in Masha’s Disney version of Snow White? Sonia rises above ennui and comes into her own as the Evil Queen in Snow White as played by Maggie Smith on Oscar night, in an absurd accent.

Jamie Cavanagh, John Sproule, Davina Stewart. Photo by Marc J. Chalifoux

I find that all the comic scenes go on a little long, possibly because both play and this production try a little too hard to be funny, and seem pitched a bit high and cartoonish.  But in a comedy by one of English-language theatre’s great ranters, there is a climactic verbal explosion that’s intentionally extended.

Goaded past endurance by the blithe indifference of Spike to social civilities, like not texting during a play reading, Vanya gets his atrophied dander up. And he lets loose with an all-encompassing full-blooded attack of disaffection with everything about the rude modern world that devalues bona fide human connection — social media, video games, pop culture, cellphones, the 2-D screen world from which quality is so notably absent…. “all worthless, and we don’t even watch the same worthless things together.” Sproule plays it with a kind of rueful, tear-y emotional quality that is a long way from the ferocious blood-letting of the Durang canon.   

How this arrives at an ending that’s not only not savage but downright chipper, maybe even heartwarming, is something I’ll leave you to discover. But there it is, a domestic comedy by Durang that feels happiness is achievable.  “I’m back,” says the terrifying Masha. “My dark night of the soul was very brief.” 


Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Christopher Durang

Directed by: John Hudson

Starring: John Sproule, Coralie Cairns, Davina Stewart, Jamie Cavanagh, Michelle Todd, Rachel Bowron

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through May 19

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org  

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