Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? The wordy title mirrors the contents of this snappy, dialogue heavy play, and seems short in comparison to the lengthy crosstalk that is present throughout the show. Written by Christopher Durang (known for his absurdist plays), the show is chock full of Chekhov, both thematically and textually (Vanya is a character from one of Chekhov’s plays, and a “cherry orchard” is mentioned a few times). It revolves around three middle-aged siblings, and a few other peculiar characters as they butt heads and break down. “Vanya and Sonia” premiered in 2012 and opened Off-Broadway in 2013, with a cast that included Sigourney Weaver as Masha and Billy Magnussen as Spike. It received six nominations at the 67th Tony Awards and earned Filipino producer Jhett Tolentino a Tony Award for Best Play.
First off, the incredible set design by Miguel Faustmann must be acknowledged, as it is the first thing you see upon entering the theater, and it is just striking. An old lake house sits onstage. It is filled with cozy looking furniture, adorned with wooden trimmings, and littered with various paraphernalia. Surrounding the house is lush greenery that seems as if it were plucked right out of the forest. Pair all of this with John Batalla’s expert lighting, and you have one very realistic and impressive set.
(READ: Meet the Cast of Rep’s ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’)
Christopher Durang’s writing is the real star of the show. When it’s loud and outrageous, so are the laughs, but even in it’s most subtle moments, “Vanya and Sonia” is so expertly written that you’re still listening to every word and watching every motion with laser focus. In the first scene, Vanya (Michael Williams) quietly sits down in the day room with his morning cup of coffee. Shortly thereafter, his adopted sister Sonia (Roselyn Perez) comes in with a cup of coffee for Vanya, and is surprised to see he already has one. The two begin to bicker, and Vanya’s perfectly cold demeanour clashes with Sonia’s despondent one. As simple as it seems, this scene only serves as a testament to the strength of the writing and performances. In this show, even the pauses between sentences are tinged with neurosis. Barging into the thick of it all is Cassandra (Naths Everett), whose outrageous character is resemblant of her namesake, the Grecian prophet cursed to be disbelieved. Later on, the third sibling, Masha (Cherie Gil), waltzes in with a young man, Joaquin Valdes’ Spike (later revealed to be her ‘beloved’). Insert the bubbly Nina (Mica Pineda), and you have a cocktail of characters that make for one explosive and hysterical show.
Due to the persistently optimistic nature of her character, Mica Pineda’s Nina comes off as bland when contrasted with the other colorful individuals in the show, though this is due to the material, and not the actress herself. Naths Everett’s Cassandra is eccentric, and on more than one occasion, delivers a lengthy and uproarious prophecy-induced spiel. Joaquin Valdes plays Spike incredibly well. Even more absurd than Cassandra, Spike is larger than life, what with his narcissistic airs and in-your-face energy. Valdes took a character that was very easy to hate and made him quite likable. Michael Williams’ Vanya gives a rousing minutes-long, rapid-fire monologue about the differences between the fifties and present day and warranted a lengthy round of applause from the audience. Cherie Gil plays the diva who has everything going for her, takes that character to new heights. But when it comes to Masha’s emotional upheaval in the early on in the second act, Gil plays it to perfection. Without a doubt, the best performance goes to Roselyn Perez for her take on Sonia. While most actors got to display their acting chops with big, dramatic monologues (Perez included) she triumphed with her understated and truly splendid performance. This is most apparent in the scene where she takes a phone call: though we only hear Sonia’s side of the conversation, Perez manages to not only engage you and make you laugh, but she truly moves you as well.
In his director’s notes, Bart Guingona describes the cast as one that “comes as close to perfection as possible”, and he is exactly right. From Michael William’s stoic Vanya, to Roselyn Perez’s woeful Sonya, Cherie Gil’s dramatic, easily-distressed Masha, Joaquin Valdes’ perfectly arrogant, air-headed Spike, Naths Everett’s kooky Cassandra, and Mica Pineda’s blissfully hopeful Nina, this cast has raised the bar very high for acting in 2017.
The best comedies have a little bit of drama in them, and the best dramas have some comedy. “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is about the dysfunctional relationship between three middle-aged siblings, and while it sounds like those are the ingredients for a heavy drama, Durang has managed to blend the two genres together so perfectly, with scenes flitting from dramatic to comedic from moment to moment. The script is truly masterful, but with Guingona’s superb direction and remarkable performances from its all-star cast, the show has certainly become the one to beat this year, and so early on too.