Monday, April 18, 2016

Dark Comedy Lights Up the Stage at Theatre in the Grove

Masha (Jodi Coffman) and Vanya (Aaron Morrow)

By Tina Arth

Anton Chekhov is inarguably one of the key figures of 19th century realism in theater, and it is a bit of an understatement to say that his worldview was not perky. Although told it was dark comedy, I was expecting something pretty gloomy when I walked into Theatre in the Grove for the opening night production of playwright Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and saw a stunningly detailed set reminiscent of the home in TITG’s 2014 production August in Osage County (also not exactly a theatrical funfest).  I walked out a few hours later with my fears assuaged, thoroughly entertained and utterly charmed. Director Zachary Centers and his cast do a fine job of capturing the often-gentle humor of Durang’s Chekhovian send-up, and show surprising restraint even when dealing with the broader comedic elements of the play.

The story centers on three siblings, all named after Chekhov characters by their theater-loving parents; in middle age, the three are still doing a great job of embodying the despair and ennui of their namesakes. Vanya and Sonia live completely unproductive lives in their childhood home, which is owned by jet-setting sister Masha, an international screen star (courtesy of her roles in the “Sexy Killer” film franchise).  Masha arrives at the homestead with her new boy toy Spike, intent on selling the property (thus leaving her siblings with no home in which to park their empty existence). A constant sense of impending doom is reinforced by the hysterical ravings of Cassandra, the cleaning lady/local prophetess. While most of Cassandra’s dire predictions are literally fulfilled, disaster is averted as the key characters find their authentic voices along with the courage to deal with the setbacks.  Oh, and it’s really, really funny.

Aaron Morrow (Vanya) is a newcomer to TITG, but will be familiar to many from performances all over Washington County and beyond in other community theater productions – frequently as a goofball, a drunk, or a drunken goofball. Morrow and director Centers have worked together to create a very different actor – witty, wry, and controlled in a huge role. Even his funniest moments, like the rant about change and his overt lusting after the hunky Spike, are played with careful timing that project both Vanya’s intelligence and Morrow’s. As Sonia, Pruella Centers is neurotic, insecure, and wonderfully mercurial – she shifts fluidly from raging angst to self-pity to almost catatonic calm, and neither the audience nor Vanya knows which Sonia will emerge next. Jodi Coffman plays Masha as the consummate actress who no longer seems to have a character of her own – she is every insecure, vain, self-absorbed and dissatisfied screen queen ever imagined – and Coffman plays it to the hilt.

Andy Roberts has a great deal of fun as boy toy Spike – his reverse strip tease is flamboyantly athletic and carefully costumed for maximum effect.  Wendy Harris Bax doesn’t just play the role of Cassandra, she attacks it, and her scene with the voodoo doll is beyond hilarious. The final character, Nina (Rachel May) is a young, beautiful aspiring actress who radiates naivety from every pore. May is sweetly innocent as an ingĂ©nue, but it is her performance as a molecule (simulating a hedgehog, a porpoise, a spider, and a host of other creatures) that allows her to display a remarkable talent for physical comedy.

Theatre in the Grove strikes a fine balance between traditional community theater fare and the truly unexpected; Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike definitely falls into the latter category. The range of humor and cultural references is broad and layered, so familiarity with Chekhov, while helpful, is by no means prerequisite to enjoying the play.  Parental discretion is advised, as there are mature themes and language.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike plays at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through May 1 with performances at 7:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays and matinees at 2:30 pm on Sundays.

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