Chekhov-tinted Comedy in PRC’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE

Have I mentioned lately how lucky we are in the Triangle to have a very good regional  professional theater at our public university in Chapel Hill? Currently, as it regularly does, PlayMakers Repertory Company is presenting a recent play in wide production around the country, which allows theater-goers here to share in a kind of dispersed national intellectual conversation. Through October 5, we are talking about Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play, and which provides a fabulous showcase for some of the PlayMakers company’s most comic talents, and for a flashy turn from the guest artist.

L to R: ARIELLE YODER as Nina, JULIE FISHELL as Masha, CHRISTIAN DALY as Spike (standing), JEFFEY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya and JULIA GIBSON as Sonia (in background). Photo: Jon Gardiner.

L to R: ARIELLE YODER as Nina, JULIE FISHELL as Masha, CHRISTIAN DALY as Spike (standing), JEFFEY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya and JULIA GIBSON as Sonia (in background) at PlayMakers Rep through October 5, 2014. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

VSMS is directed here by Libby Appel (artistic director emerita of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), who directed an exquisite version of The Glass Menagerie for PRC a few years ago. She brings the same deft guidance to Durang’s play, ensuring that the delicate aspects of the characters are not lost in the rowdy roar of the broader comedy. Appel is undoubtedly aided in her approach by her deep knowledge of the works of Anton Chekhov: she has recently completed new translations of five Chekhov plays. The more Chekhov one knows, the more references one will catch and enjoy and correlate inVSMS, but it is not essential to know any.

Two siblings, Vanya (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) and Sonia (Julia Gibson), live in the house they grew up in, the house in which they devoted the prime of their lives to caring for their infirm, demented parents. The parents are now dead, and Vanya and Sonia are marooned with their disappointments and old grievances, their tedium interrupted only by Cassandra, their semi-psychic housekeeper (Kathryn Hunter-Williams). Their successful–but now losing the battle against aging–actress sister Masha (Julie Fishell), who pays the bills, blows in with her boy-toy (Christian Daly). He sets everyone on their ears with his bold sexuality. And then there’s the ingenue next door, Nina (Arielle Yoder). Oh yes, Masha announces her plan to sell the house, and her other plan–to take everyone to a costume party. She’s brought their costumes: her brother and sister are to be two of the dwarves to Masha’s Snow White. One revolts; one doesn’t.

Under Appel’s direction and with this tight ensemble the play achieves a dynamic balance between the outsized comic carrying on and the right-sized human sibling interactions, with the two catalytic outsiders to inject additional energy. Christian Daly, with his large-planed face and hyper-physique, is very amusing as the ridiculous would-be actor Spike, and his presence in the story allows for even more theatrical references to bolster all the Chekhovian ones. He makes you want to wash your hands, but lovely Arielle Yoder makes you feel like you have just washed your hands. Her character Nina may be star-struck and stage-struck, but she is an actual ingenue, and her presence is a balm to the older people.

The squabbles, alliances, attacks and unexpected revelations of the three siblings always ring true, and form the more memorable aspect of the show. Julie Fishell is a marvel to behold as the fading movie star Masha: commanding, neurotic, comic, tragic–and ultimately, released from her fears, at least for a minute. Her timing, as ever, is impeccable.

KATHRYN HUNTER-WILLIAMS as Cassandra and JEFFREY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

KATHRYN HUNTER-WILLIAMS as Cassandra and JEFFREY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya.             Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Comic honors go to Kathryn Hunter-Williams for her portrayal of the nutty housekeeper Cassandra, who goes about in floating clothes, spouting warnings and prophecies. The scene with the voodoo doll is purely hilarious. All fans of Hunter-Williams will want to see her in this unusual role.

But Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Vanya and Julia Gibson as Sonia, although they had the quieter roles, made the heart beat in the play. I’ve seen Cornell play many, varied, characters, but I had never seen him inhabit a role more fully than he did Vanya on opening night. It was a beautiful performance, robust but nuanced emotionally. He and Gibson, who has shown amazing range in the short time she’s been with PRC, interacted with a testy ordinariness that was both amusing and endearing.

Gibson rather steals the show with Sonia’s transformation from dumpy whiner (“I have no life!” “I am a wild turkey!”) to a voluptuous woman who can take action. Her appearance in a blue beaded evening gown, speaking like Maggie Smith, brought the house down, but the later scene, when Sonia takes a phone call from a man she’d met at the costume party, is far more affecting. Gibson’s face expresses a trajectory of emotions leading to a tentative happiness, a surprised contentment. And in the final scene, the three siblings nestle together, sharing those emotions. Lovely.

 

JEFFREY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya and JULIA GIBSON as Sonia. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

JEFFREY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya and JULIA GIBSON as Sonia. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

ASSASSINS Hits Target, Wins Prize at PlayMakers Repertory Company

Attention must be paid to PlayMakers' ASSASSINS. L to R: Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau, Maren Searle as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz and Joseph Medeiros as Guiseppe Zangara. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Attention must be paid to PlayMakers’ ASSASSINS. L to R: Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau, Maren Searle as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz and Joseph Medeiros as Guiseppe Zangara. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Musicals aren’t my first favorite form of theatre, and probably won’t ever be, but PlayMakers Repertory Company has been steadily eroding my prejudices with the seductive pleasures of its annual large-cast musical productions. Assassins, this year’s blow-out (through April 20), happens to also be a ferociously comic consideration of American gun culture, where the assassin or would-be assassin of a President gains the summit of social and historical notoriety. For PlayMakers, it continues the theatrical exploration begun in January, with the PRC-commissioned The Story of the Gun by Mike Daisey. The Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical Assassins, directed here by Mike Donahue, first played in 1990, and in some ways the show’s killers seem almost quaint–hapless and endearing, even–compared to today’s suicide bombers. In other ways, the show seems au courant, as when Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Sam Byck talks about flying a 747 into the White House to kill Dick Nixon. The script is rich with 20th century social, political and artistic references (e.g. Death of a Salesman) and may mean the most to people who already have some familiarity with a few 20th century Presidents and the assorted characters who took up guns to kill them, but you needn’t know a thing to have a good time.

Non-linear space-time in PRC's ASSASSINS: Patrick Mchugh as Lee Harvey Oswald (L) AND Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Non-linear space-time in PRC’s ASSASSINS: Patrick McHugh as Lee Harvey Oswald (L) and Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Assassins foregoes a straightforward storyline in favor of a collection of robust vignettes and songs  that collectively make a potent stew of satire, cynicism, pity and politics, floating in a gravy of dark humor. It foregoes the constraints of linear time altogether, freely bringing together people of different eras–John Wilkes Booth appears before Lee Harvey Oswald, for instance. The characters and stories are provoked, tempted, drawn on and catered to by the Balladeer (Spencer Moses) and the Proprietor, played by Ray Dooley. Dooley has not been onstage enough this season, and it’s wonderful to see him do his magic, imbuing his very footsteps with menace. His smile as he offers guns guns guns glitters with Mephistophelean knowledge. I had never seen a production of this show previously, and was skeptical that this stuff would really be funny–but I laughed often and loudly, between chills.

Maren Searle (L) as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore in PlayMakers ASSASSINS. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Maren Searle (L) as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore in PlayMakers ASSASSINS. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Julie Fishell is hilarious as Sara Jane Moore, who tried, sort of, to assassinate President Gerald Ford, and she and Maren Searle as Squeaky Fromme are priceless together. Jeffrey Blair Cornell channels Al Pacino and gives a fantastic performance as Sam Byck, a once-employed and self-respecting man, now an out-of-work Santa who just can’t see anything else to do besides try to kill the President. When we first see him, he’s wearing his Santa suit and a 3-day beard. He strips off his jacket to reveal a singleton undershirt and sits down with his lunch and a tape recorder to record a rambling letter to Lenny Bernstein, his hero, before he heads of to commandeer that 747.

Even he is upstaged by Jeffrey Meanza, who steals the show each time he appears as Charles Guiteau, the charming crazy con man who killed President Garfield. Meanza, whose day job is as assistant artistic director of PlayMakers, sings and carries on to beat the band, and his dancing! Choreographer Casey Sams has him skipping and bowing all over the stage in a charming and most amusing fashion. That band is pretty hard to beat, too. Mark Hartman on piano leads another nine musicians as the brass-rich group plays throughout the show far upstage in Rachel Hauck’s dark and flashy set that combines carnival, cabaret and Manganyar Seduction.

Assassins has a great tag line from itself: “Everybody pays attention when you’ve got a gun.” No doubt about it.

L to R: Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore, Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth, Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau and Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz, in PRC's ASSASSINS. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

L to R: Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore, Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth, Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau and Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz, in PRC’s ASSASSINS. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Changing, changing: METAMORPHOSES at PlayMakers, in repertory with THE TEMPEST

Stories of metamorphosis abound in every culture; our changing bodies and changing desires have caused them to arise in the human mind since the beginning. Anyone raised in Western literary culture will have been exposed since childhood to the stories of strange and wondrous changes collected by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-18 AD) from all the Greek and Roman sources available to him and collated into 15 books of poetically flowing story, Metamorphoses. The stories explain things, like the existence of spiders; or lay out the consequences of behaviors like greed, incest, hubris or self-absorption; they offer consolations against the griefs of life. Ovid has been a source for writers as diverse as Shakespeare and the forgotten scribes of children’s early readers.

Arachne could weave even more beautifully than Athena, shown here disguised as a crone, preparing to turn Arachne into the first spider for that insolence. From the 1928 children's compendium, Book Trails. The story appears in Book VI of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Arachne could weave even more beautifully than Athena, shown here disguised as a crone, preparing to turn Arachne into the first spider for that insolence. From the 1928 children’s compendium, Book Trails. The story appears in Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

More recently, the playwright, director and MacArthur Fellowship winner Mary Zimmerman raided Ovid’s trove for her 1998 play, Metamorphoses. She chose just a few of his stories to enliven onstage, and augmented them with related material from other sources (poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke; the story of Eros and Psyche, which does not come down via Ovid), creating a theatrical experience that mimics the carefully crafted flow of Ovid’s work, in which each story has some connection to those on either side of it.

In Zimmerman’s work, water, that great signifier of formal fluidity and agent of change, is a central element, and water there is—a great pool taking up much of the stage–at UNC’s Paul Green Theatre, where PlayMakers Repertory Company has mounted Metamorphoses. Co-directed by PlayMakers’ Joseph Haj and visiting master artist Dominique Serrand, Metamorphoses is playing in rotating rep with The Tempest through Dec. 8.

The ensemble in PRC's METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

The ensemble in PRC’s METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

PRC has production capabilities far outstripping all other theaters in the area, capabilities created and supported by the company’s role in the teaching programs of the Department of Dramatic Art. Every production at PlayMakers is a learning experience for both acting and theatre-tech students, and they supply a huge labor force while learning. For a show involving water on stage, with actors continually getting in and out of it, backstage work increases exponentially; for two alternating shows in which actors and their clothes must be dried before their next entrance, a backstage cast of thousands and many flow charts (pardon the expression) are required.

Julia Gibson as the psychologist, Gregory DeCandia as Apollo, and Nathaniel P. Claridad as Phaeton. Ari Picker on guitar. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Ari Picker, guitar; Julia Gibson,  Gregory DeCandia, and Nathaniel P. Claridad, during Phaeton’s tale.  Photo: Michal Daniel/ PRC.

Carey Cox in the rain, with Nilan Johnson and Nathaniel P. Claridad, in METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Carey Cox as Eurydice in the rain, with Nilan Johnson and Nathaniel P. Claridad, in METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

But one does not think about that while the stories unfurl and float away through the dark sea of mythic consciousness. One may think about time, or timelessness, or how much we are the same as the men and women who lived thousands of years ago and generated these mythic tales. One may be pierced or pinched by them to tears, so vivid are the stories and so exact their parallels to personal experiences. Just in case someone might have missed their relevance to contemporary issues, Zimmerman inserted a note-taking, jargon-speaking psychologist (well-played by Julia Gibson) into the story of Phaeton (Nathaniel P. Claridad) crashing and burning after taking his father (Gregory DeCandia) Apollo’s sun chariot for a disastrous spin. The script makes this a funny story, but most of them are not–though several do have happy conclusions. There’s not anything you can do to alleviate the pain of Orpheus, who just can’t not look back. But there is a kind of joy in the metamorphosis into seabirds of the grieving widow and her drowned husband, and celebration when Midas after much travail loses his golden touch and regains his live daughter. The great stories to live by are saved for the end, and by the end on opening night, the cast, most of whom are first and second year MFA students, had lost their initial stiffness and gotten into the rhythm (many of these actors also play in The Tempest which opened the night before, so some transitional moments can be forgiven). Both the story of Philemon and Baucis, an old, poor, couple who give hospitality to strangers, and thereby entertain the gods unaware; and the story of Eros and Psyche divided and reunited, are beautifully played. It’s wonderful to see these ancient myths brought to new life in young bodies, and to be reminded of  how, always changing, we never change.

Brandon Garegnani and Arielle Yoder as Eros and Psyche in the PRC production of METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Brandon Garegnani and Arielle Yoder as Eros and Psyche in the PRC production of METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

As satisfying as Metamorphoses is, the companion production of The Tempest is even more fulfilling. My review was published Nov. 8, 2013, on Classical Voice of North Carolina, with the title “A Lucid Storm: The Tempest at PlayMakers.”

Julie Fishell as Prospero and Maren Searle as Ariel in PRC's new production of THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Julie Fishell as Prospero and Maren Searle as Ariel in THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest is one of his most delightful plays, and not only for its many pleasant aspects. A story’s told from start to finish, and in it wrongs are righted, men better themselves, and a love match is made. Spirits and monsters can be seen and heard. There are ridiculous pratfalls and tender revelations. There’s music, and language that could be called the same. But no matter what interpretation du jour is laid upon the script, the play’s meditation on the magical power of words and stories to create and shape life is what makes it so engaging each time one sees it, and so worthy of seeing again and again.

The young lovers Miranda and Ferdiand, played by Caroline Strange and Brandon Garegnani. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

The young lovers Miranda and Ferdiand, played by Caroline Strange and Brandon Garegnani. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

PlayMakers Repertory Company has just opened a refined and visually-lovely new….READ THE REST ON CVNC HERE.

Wonderfully comic Julia Wilson as Stephano, with Jeffrey Blair Cornell's Caliban and John Allore's Trinculo under the blanket, in PRC's THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Wonderfully comic Julia Wilson as Stephano, with Jeffrey Blair Cornell’s Caliban and John Allore’s Trinculo under the blanket, in PRC’s THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

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