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Chekhov and Durang equals a hit

VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE

Director: Bobby Heaney

Vanya, Sonia, and Masha. Credit: Suzy Bernstein

Cast: Michael Richard, Bo Petersen, Louise Saint-Claire, Richard Gau

Venue: Theatre on the Bay

until: September 6

Rating: ****

NAMES like Vanya, Sonia, and Masha put one in mind of Chekhov, as do the situations of the characters and the leisurely pace at which the plot evolves; but this award-winning work by Christopher Durang is as American as blueberry pie, and is firmly set in the 21st century.

The blend of Chekhovian inspiration and contemporary drama proves piquant and is so inclusive that it offers something to gratify most tastes: there is broad comedy, acerbic satire, and more than a dash of pathos.

Crisp direction from veteran Bobby Heaney elicits polished performances from the likes of Michael Richard (Vanya), Bo Petersen (Sonia) and Louise Saint-Claire (Masha), whose extensive acting experience enables them to tackle challenging roles with aplomb.

Their collective prowess is nicely balanced by performances from newcomers Richard Gau (Spike), Emilie Owen (Nina) and Kensiwe Tshabalala (Cassandra).

Michael Richard excels as the over-conciliatory, repressed brother of Masha; his unexpected tirade inspired by stamp-licking is a highlight of the evening, and appears to astonish him in hindsight as much as it does his audience on and off the stage.

All the folk drifting in and out of the garden room where the play is set are more or less repellent: Sonia wallows in self-pity (“You enjoy complaining too much to kill yourself”, remarks her half-brother); Masha is vain, arrogant and delusional; Spike is resolutely self-absorbed (as Nina says, “He’s so attractive except for his personality”), and Nina is a mealy-mouthed Polyanna. As for the char, not named Cassandra for nothing, her prophesies and Voodoo-dabbling make her a recurrent caricature.

Characterisation such as this increases the demands made on actors, as the audience is emotionally detached and accordingly less indulgent towards the protagonists.

Another challenge is the Chekhovian length of the piece, but director and actors take it in their stride to ensure the entertainment value of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is sustained throughout its considerable duration.

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