Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Torrance Theatre Company
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
Jay Castle, Liliana Carrillo, and Rebecca Silberman
Photo by Alex Madrid
Three of the four names in the title of this Christopher Durang play sound familiar, right? The three are characters in classic Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s plays. Spike? Not so much. But although this play may get nods and titters of recognition for its parallels to and references to Chekhov, it is far more than just a clever mash-up. By its end, at least in this production, the audience will care about these people and might even be inspired to rejigger our own lives.
Here, Vanya, Sonia, and Masha are middle-aged siblings. Their story takes place at the family homestead in eastern Pennsylvania. Vanya (Jay Castle) and Sonia (Rebecca Silberman) have always lived here. Until recently, they had been caregivers for their age-ravaged parents. Masha (Jennifer Faneuff) is world-renowned actor, who left home but who has paid every family bill and then some. Now she returns to the house to drop a bomb. In need of constant adulation, she brings boy-toy Spike.
Vanya seems to have accepted his role in life, though tucked away is a play he has written that voices his fears and frustrations. Sonia cannot accept her role, because, in her mind, every day takes her further away from a chance at a full life. The family is tended to by Cassandra. Don’t remember that name from Russian literature? The original Cassandra was memorialized in Greek mythology, blessed with a gift of prophecy but cursed to never be believed. This Cassandra (Liliana Carrillo) has the gift, but it’s a bit askew, and she can manipulate it.
Outsiders who stir the status quo are Spike (Luke Barrow), eager to advance his career and to strip down to his tidy plaidies (more about Bradley Allen Lock’s excellent costuming later), and Nina, also a Chekhov character of course. This Nina (Carly Linehan) and the Russian one are the pretty, young, aspiring actors visiting from next door, nubile benchmarks that chafe the older women.
James Hormel stages the production gracefully and directs with a pleasing mix of sweetly comedic and wrenchingly poignant tones, never going for cheap laughs. On Cary Jordahl’s transportive set, with lighting by Streetlite that evokes Russian sunlight, the action spreads across the porchlike morning room and makes us believe we can see the orchard and lake (yes, Chekhov’s locales are here, too).
Hormel seems to have found the child in all of the siblings, a characteristic that emerges often in real life when long-separated families reunite. In Silberman’s Sonia a touch of a tantrum lurks, waiting to be set off, though, by Act 2, events have given Sonia a minutely more vibrant carriage and slightly upturned chin. In Vanya, Castle swaths himself in a comforting brotherly aura. Faneuff, though fully exhibiting the glamour of Masha the star, finds the bruised heart of Masha the middle child, who had to make a role for herself in this family.
Two monologues vent Vanya’s and Sonia’s thoughts and fears. Sonia’s happens as she takes a phone call, excellently executed by Silberman as Sonia’s, and our, heart cracks open. For Vanya, it comes in a release of long-repressed words as young Nina tries to read his play but modern life intrudes in the form of Spike’s obliviousness.
Linehan’s Nina is indeed luminous, her youthful worship of and respect for the siblings never waning. Barrow’s Spike has his moments, particularly his “audition” scene, in which he creates without self-consciousness an actor totally into himself. Adding liveliness and a cheeky meta-theatricality, Carrillo’s Cassandra bursts in with prophecy that sounds like Euripides being delivered on a community theater stage.
Lock’s costuming includes a sequined gown for Sonia that leaves latitude for a comedic but apt visual joke. There’s also an appropriate amount of latitude in Spike’s briefs. And outfits for the neighbors’ costume party earn Lock sincere, spontaneous applause.
On one level, this play is about family dynamics and how the healthy-at-their-core ones draw closer when threatened by toxic outsiders. Ultimately, though, it’s about escaping the roles others assign to us, the characters we cast ourselves as and then act out, without acknowledging our authentic selves. Chekhov would be smiling.
January 25, 2016
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Christopher Tierney and Gillian Abbott
Photo by Matthew Murphy
In marketing this production, we’re told we’ll once again have the time of our lives; I, for one, would like my two-and-a-half hours back. Capitalizing on the lasting success of the classic 1987 movie of the same name is all this touring production is about, even evidenced by a life-size figure of the late Patrick Swayze placed in the lobby to get loyal fans in the mood even before the downbeat.
And in the mood those diehard fans are. In all honesty, a great portion of Pantages opening-nighters appeared to be having the time of their lives reliving the moments from the original film obviously still indelible to them. There is a pervasive and bold reliance throughout the production on video projections, with scenes from the movie duplicated then combined with actors playing waiters and others endlessly tromping on stage and off, placing and removing trees, tables, and chairs, chairs, and more chairs.
Beginning with a panoramic vista of the Catskills in 1963, followed by the entrance to Kellerman’s resort, the visual nostalgia goes into high gear when Johnny Castle (Christopher Tierney) starts training Baby Houseman (Gillian Abbott) in the great outdoors, doing so behind a scrim with videos of a field of tall grass and the shimmering waters of the Hudson projected before them. Anyone who is not familiar with the movie would still have no trouble identifying these locations as directly copied from its predecessor, since members of the continuously swooning and gasping audience chockfull of fans laugh and cheer at first sight of each location as though recalling something that happened in their own personal past some 29 years ago, when the film debuted.
There’s not much to praise in this production, which would probably be successful if one day it lands in one of the venues formerly hosting Menopause the Musical or Carrot Top in the lower-rent district of the Vegas Strip. The acting is uniformly unremarkable, while director James Powell’s staging meanders around the pivotal dance numbers as though someone was making it all up as he went along. The script—which makes brief and pandering references to the civil rights issues of the times going on elsewhere while these people concentrate on dance competitions, croquet lessons, and seemingly unprotected sex between the staff and the guests—duplicates scene after scene from the film without a lick of passion to help us care about these people or what’s happening to them.
One would think, in a lavishly produced touring musical version of a story with Dancing as half of its title, the dancing—and the choreography, by Michele Lynch, re-creating the original inspiration of Kate Champion—would be far better. Even Tierney, as the Swayze-hunk housepainter making his seasonal living teaching dancing at the resort while reputedly bedding an impressive number of the womenfolk, appears more undirected than talentless. His movements overextend almost past the balance point, with arms suddenly thrust out so far they could clock anyone dancing around him who might one day get too close. There’s someone extremely capable in there somewhere, but without more guidance here, his performance is more grandstanding than graceful.
Perhaps the best work comes from Adrienne Walker and Doug Carpenter as the show’s resident singers, doing a dynamic job with some of the most enduring standards from the era, such as “This Magic Moment” and, of course, the show’s signature “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life.” Oddly, throughout most of the production they are merely props, hanging out and singing their hearts out on either side of the stage as their fellow cast members dance—until very late in the game when a sketchy tacked-on love story between them is hinted at but never explored.
The original film deserves a better stage treatment then this sketchy and sanitized tribute show; changing its name to Slightly Smudged Dancing would be far more accurate.
February 3, 2016
2–Feb. 21. 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. Tue-Thu 8pm, Fri 8pm; Sat
2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 35
minutes, including intermission. $29-150. (800) 982-2787.
The Eclectic Company Theatre
Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
Paul Messinger and Marbry Steward
Photo by Steve B. Green
For anyone ever enticed into attending a vacation-plan sales presentation with promises of some sort of “free” gift, playwright Steve B. Green’s occasionally humorous “dark comedy” on the subject may elicit either embarrassed chuckles or hangdog shame, depending on whether or not one wound up purchasing a membership. To those who have never experienced such a nerve-wracking, 90-minute hard sell, this play is, more often than not, right on the mark and may stop you from ever taking the bait.
Still, Green’s script contains more than its fair share of dramaturgical holes. The many scenes introducing the show’s various characters and their backstories run the gamut from sharply written and sharply executed to seemingly mundane and momentum-leaching. Likewise, the dark turn toward the end of Act 1, which then becomes the entire foundation for Act 2, although based loosely on a true-life experience Green had while working for just such an organization, drags on far too long. Green winds up having to resort to the silly rather than the mentally stimulating just to stretch his play to its current two-act length.
Performances range from intriguing to shtick. On the night reviewed, Green stepped into the role of Frank, the ever-hustling office manager for this group of twisted travel advisors. Green does a marvelous job flipping, sometimes instantaneously, between comforting his underlings and attacking them with the ferocity of an almost Mafioso-like enforcer. Playing the newest member of this group is Tony Pauletto as Tom, the Bob Newhart in this world of liars and whack jobs. Pauletto is perfect as the everyman appalled by his co-workers’ cutthroat behavior yet determined to succeed without compromising his personal ethics.
A trio of highly disparate characters, played with varying degrees of success, rounds out the remainder of the staff. Kerr Lordygan is wickedly funny as Jack, a jittery weasel masking his insecurities by constant trying to prove his superiority to Tom. As Christine, the company’s lone female employee who has topped off the sales chart by capitalizing on her sex appeal, Sarmarie Klein ably fills the role of femme fatale. As Mike, a self-important bully who has the hots for Christine, Travis Quentin is stuck with one of Green’s more one-dimensional characters. Only in a confrontation with Pauletto’s Tom, set in the men’s room, is Quentin given the level of material into which he can sink his teeth, resulting in one of the most gripping scenes in the production.
Leading the pack of their prospective customers were Victoria Yvonne Martinez, who stepped into the role of Maria at this particular performance, and Zachary Reeve Davidson as her wannabe-rapper boyfriend, Bart. This pair’s bickering brought to life some of the best comic moments of the entire show with their New Jersey accents and attitudes in full swing. Marbry Steward and Paul Messinger capably portray an older couple who wind up serving as the catalyst for Act 2’s rather unsatisfying twists and turns and seemingly endless false endings.
Production values, with scenery by Marco De Leon and lighting by Yancey Dunham, are adequate, but the production’s running time could be shaved considerably with faster scene transitions.
January 19, 2016
Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Motown
Troubadour Theatre Company at Falcon Theatre
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Andy Lopez, Darrin Revitz, Rick Batalla, Suzanne Jolie Narbonne, and Tyler King
Photo by Jill Mamey
Matt Walker and his Troubadour Theater Company have no filter, and, luckily for their legion of rabid fans, they haven’t had one for the last 20 years. The Troubies are best known for their annual parodies of classic holiday stories, selling out Falcon Theatre every December for some 15 seasons. After the tremendous success of such artist-themed titles as Little Drummer Bowie, Frosty the Snow Manilow, A Christmas Carole King, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDOORS, the much-awarded company this year reprises its triumphant Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Motown, giving its performers the opportunity to widen their scope of who and what to spoof as they turn their attention to Detroit’s most richly prolific industry since Henry Ford invented the motorcar.
Under Walker’s nothing-safe direction and Eric Heinly’s spirited musical direction, the Troubies pull out all the jams to jam on all the classic Motown hits, dancing in synchronization while wrapped in Sharon McGunigle’s splendiferous and outrageous holiday costuming. They journey to the “Land of Smokey Miracles and Supreme Temptations” to tell the tale of an orphaned infant named Claus (the rubber-faced, Ray Bolger–limbed Walker). He has been dumped on the doorstep of the Kringle family at their home in Sombertown, located somewhere near the dismal Alpine forests where, as actors drag on a mere pair of flimsy cardboard trees to represent it, it’s a “cold, creepy, and confusing place, kinda like a Donald Trump rally.”
Santa faces a crisis when the Burgermeister of the village (Mike Sulprizio channeling an all-singing, all-dancing Lionel Atwill) falls over a stuffed bunny and subsequently bans all toys from Sombertown. Santa seeks the help of the wood’s resident Winter Warlock, played by Beth Kennedy towering over the other players on cloud-piercing stilts and brandishing long white Edward Scissorhands fingernails that nearly keep her from picking up the Slinky that Santa gives her for Christmas—causing Walker to ask as she struggles with composure if she’s breaking a character she “barely had time to establish.”
The quick-witted Rick Batalla hilariously guides the story along as STD, a festively adorned mailman who begins by getting the town’s children gathered ’round for the recounting, reassuring them they’re safe to join him since he’s not a pitchman for Subway. From the sidelines, the deadpanned Batalla throws out one rapid impromptu quip after another, beginning by commenting on the audience’s reaction to his first pun with, “If you start groaning now, it’s going to be a long night,” and noting, as fog effects seep from below the curtains, that there’s a Reggae festival going on backstage. Matching STD’s junior post office habitat on stage left is Leah Sprecher stationed at stage right as the troupe’s resident back-up lounge singer, touting her new CD “Doin’ It From Behind” and continuously downing her signature cocktail made with “gin, Tylenol PM, and tears.”
Walker and his limitless band of crazies, despite all the freedom to play around and adlib at will, also work hard to keep the fast-paced production tight and all tied up with a glittery but neat metaphoric holiday bow. They honor Nadine Ellis’s original choreography (re-created under the guidance of cast member Suzanne Jolie Narbonne), having obviously rehearsed their best James Brown–inspired moves to perfection. Everything runs like clockwork here as the audience sits with mouths agape at the rampant silliness of it all, most of those gathered thrilled not to be that one woman sitting in the front row whose snorts of appreciative laughter became the brunt of myriad jokes throughout the evening.
It just wouldn’t seem like Christmas without the Troubie’s annual holiday spectaculars around these-here parts to kick off whatever festivities we’re still able to muster in this less-than festive world of ours—and boy, do we all need a good laugh right now.
December 13, 2015
11–Jan. 17. 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 4 pm &
and 7pm (check website for holiday schedule changes). Running time 80
minutes, no intermission. $29–44. (818)
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
Amanda Blake Davis and Robyn Norris
Sometimes theater is about humankind’s greatest achievers. Sometimes it’s about supremely tragic figures. And sometimes, as with this show, it’s about the rest of us.
A group of Second City’s fine performers went off piste and conducted a social experiment. After Robyn’s (Robyn Norris) friend posted a profile on a dating site and asked Robyn to check it over, Robyn set up an account to access the site. Robyn created the outlandish profile of an admittedly “crazy-insane person” she named TracyLovesCats. A shockingly large number of men—and women—responded, begging for various forms of contact with “Tracy.”
Norris’s fellow troupe members Chris Alvarado, Rob Belushi, Amanda Blake Davis, Kate Duffy, and Bob Ladewig joined in, posting outrageous profiles no one could possibly think were anything other than a joke. These performers’ “sketch” show, Undateable, re-enacts verbatim the heartfelt responses by real, everyday people to these perverse personals.
So, even though Rob (Belushi) pushed the intimacy-phobic envelope with DoorSlamEric, women think Eric is dateable. And although PioneerInABox (Kate Duffy) gets busted (she claims to function as if in the 1860s, yet she’s online), she manages to lure interest. Even Amanda’s (Blake Davis) age-questionable Old4U75 appeals to a prospective beau.
The show, a fascinating concept, is well-structured and is imaginatively directed by Frank Caeti. It is also, of course, hilarious, though a strong strain of sympathy runs through it. And even though the show has been running for months, the performers have fresh energy. These performers are more interested in telling their story than in “being funny,” so the laughs come from the audience’s self-recognition and not from any obnoxious stage-hogging shenanigans.
The troupe sings and dances—and not badly—to enhance several of their “scientific” points about romantic behavior. A few minutes of improv at the end of the show reflect the performers’ well-honed chops.
Locational cautions: The venue is in Hollywood where street parking has a two-hour limit, metered until midnight on Fridays. The show is a mere one hour, but it undoubtedly will start a few minutes late. In addition, the theater is upstairs, and the site has no elevator. But if you’re swift and spry, head on up there for a dose of reality. It will probably provide you with more than several hearty belly laughs. It might also make you weep for mankind.
August 19, 2013
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