Tacoma Arts Live begins new season with ‘Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike’

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“Beware of Hootie Pie!” That line has been going through my head ever since I saw the opening night performance of Tacoma Arts Live’s production of Christopher Durang’s 2012 “Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike.” Go for yourself and you’ll find out how funny that line is and how fun it is to repeat.

The Hootie Pie line is spoken (repeatedly) by Cassandra (Kristen Natalia), the gesticulating, prophesizing, cleaning woman who is but one among a batch of vividly drawn characters in this boisterous farce directed by Marianne Savell. The rest or the characters are Vanya (David Quicksall), Sonia (April Poland), Masha (Cas Pruitt), Spike (Rodman Bolek) and Nina (Valerie Ryan Miller). The ubiquitous Hootie Pie is never seen.

The play runs through Nov. 25 and is a new regional theater program of Tacoma Arts Live (formerly Broadway Center for the Performing Arts). During his curtain speech, the organization’s executive director, David Fisher, noted that after 10 years of intermittent theater productions, they are going to be staging theatrical performances on a regular basis. This first season will consist of two productions: The currently running “Vanya” and Yasmina Reza’s “ART” coming up next May.

“Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike” was done in conjunction with Actor’s Equity, the national actors’ and stage managers’ union, and is an attempt to bring in some of the best actors available, while still involving local, non-union performers as well. In upcoming years, Tacoma Arts Live will expand its regional theater program to a four-production season.

The story deals with three siblings, Vanya, Sonia and Masha, who are well into middle age. Masha is the worldliest of the three, having gone out into the world to make a living as an actress in horror films. Vanya and Sonia, meanwhile, have stayed home to look after their aging parents. When Masha shows up with her boy-toy Spike and announces that she wants to sell the family home, the three are forced to take stock of their lives. In conjunction with a neighbor girl, Nina, they all attend a costume party while Masha is in town. The dynamics and witticisms that dart from character to character – like synapses in the brain – are what keeps the whole thing bubbling along.

All of the actors in the play are superb. Vanya and Sonia (a gay man and his adopted sister) are like an old married couple who seem to have lost all ambition. Masha, meanwhile, is in denial about her age and desperately clings to vain, shallow Spike (who strips down to his skivvies) as if he is youth itself. Nina is of Spike’s age group, but her interests tend toward the vintage. She loves Ingmar Bergman movies, for example. Cassandra whirls over the stage predicting gloom and doom like an oracle out of control.

The play is a comedic and contemporary take on themes and characters from Anton Chekhov’s best-known plays. The names of the characters, their relationships and many of the events in the play are taken from “The Cherry Orchard,” “Three Sisters,” “Uncle Vanya” and “The Seagull.” Knowing Chekhov can enhance some of the humor, as, for example, when Sonia frequently romanticizes a nearby “cherry orchard” and the other characters insist that it is merely a group of a few cherry trees. Sonia is obviously imaging herself to be a character in Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” a play that features a large, old and well-known orchard that is in blossom during the play. You don’t need to be steeped in Chekhov, however, to fully enjoy the characters and their antics. The actors have fully fleshed out their characters and it is sheer pleasure to become caught up in the clever scenarios that they make among themselves. And anyone who is older than a millennial will no doubt feel themselves to be right there next to Vanya as he dresses down Spike for texting during a reading of his “nonconventional” play. Blake York’s elaborate and realistic set also serves to draw the audience in for a full engagement with the comedy.

With “Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike,” Tacoma Arts Live is off with a bang in its new regional theater program. This is a go-see production. Just remember to stay well away from Hootie Pie!

For more information, visit www.TacomaArtsLive.org.

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