I’ll be honest: as a script, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike confuses me and on occasion annoys the heck out of me. (To give you the Reader’s Digest version of why, I’ll just point out that it includes more than one Chekhov-related dad joke.)
In complete contrast to this assessment, however, I’m thrilled to be honest again: as a production, Riverfront Theater Company’s version of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is so delightful that it completely counteracted my opinion of the script. From start to finish, I was struck by the clear dedication, talent, and joy on display.
Riverfront Theater Company (née Stage Right) has recently rebranded; Vanya and Sonia…opens its inaugural season under its new name. It’s certainly no misnomer: performances take place in an event space only a few feet from the Allegheny in Aspinwall Riverfront Park. I was greeted at the box office by Jim Froehlich and Jenna Hayes, the company’s President/Business Manager and Vice President/Director of Education, respectively. Their warm welcome set the tone for the evening: excitement to be creating and sharing a theatrical experience.
The plot of Vanya and Sonia…is simple enough: siblings Vanya and Sonia are entering their twilight years at the family house in Bucks County, having spent a good portion of their adulthood taking care of their now-deceased elderly parents and creating nothing in the way of a life for themselves. Their sister, Masha, is a famous movie star who pays the bills and avoids the phone calls. Vanya and Sonia’s predictable existence is upset when Masha returns for a visit, bringing along her much younger boyfriend Spike, who has a wandering eye as egregious as his over-the-top acting. Family drama and antics ensue.
While the plot isn’t especially complicated, the material still isn’t easy; and, in the days since I saw the show, I keep thinking of how impressive the cast is in handling it. They are individually excellent and, when taken together, add another layer to their collective performance. I can’t choose an MVP, so I’ll have to highlight them all:
As Vanya, Randy Berner brings a lovable world-weariness and sense of dry humor that serves as a perfect foil for Randi Ippolito’s equally lovable and frantically vulnerable Sonia. From the moment she walks on stage, Emily Welsh is believable as movie star Masha, from her humblebrags to her hidden insecurities. Rounding out the eponymous quartet as Spike, Jamie McDonald strikes the perfect balance between providing tension to the story and providing considerable comic relief to the audience. And finally, Noelle Pollock (as housekeeper/soothsayer Cassandra) and Meredith Kocur (as aspiring-actress-next-door Nina) make me wonder why the play doesn’t have six names in its title: their contributions to the proceedings are entirely necessary and entirely a pleasure to watch. Under Rogella Jaoudé’s sprightly direction, which balances the show’s comic highs and emotional lows, the cast truly makes the characters their own.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also give a shoutout to the entire design and construction team, who have worked wonders in a space that can’t have been easy to convert into a stage.
It may seem odd to venture to a park as the weather turns so cold, but for this production, it’s worth the drive. If this is Riverfront Theater Company’s calling card, I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike runs through Nov. 16th. For tickets and additional information, visit Riverfront Theater Company’s homepage.