Saturday, January 28, 2017

Review of Repertory Phils VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE: Gleeful Gloom

January 29, 2107

This year, Repertory Philippines is celebrating its 50th founding anniversary and 80th season of shows since Zenaida Amador and Baby Barredo staged their very first production "Miss Julie" in front of an audience of seven back in 1967.  It has been an up-and-down roller coaster ride for this company in these recent years. While they still earned critical success with shows like "The Producers" (2013) and "August Osage County" (2014), they have mostly been criticized for staging dated plays or tepid musicals. 

However, along with their hip new brand name REP and revitalized logo, the choice for their opening salvo for this season is this Tony-award winning play in 2013 by American satirist playwright Christopher Durang. The four characters in the title were all being played by big-name theater stars. REP is clearly going all out on this their golden year. 

The show is set in the country home of miserable bickering middle-aged siblings Vanya and Sonia, whose lives stagnated as they took care of their ill (now deceased) parents. Their sister Masha, who left their home, lived her dream and became a world-famous actress, now owned the house and pays for its upkeep. 

One day, Masha came back home to attend a costume party in their neighborhood, bringing home with her a studly but brainless boytoy, aspiring actor Spike. In the midst of their reunion and discussions about what costumes to wear for the party, Masha then drops a bomb that she is planning to sell their house. 

The play is full of references to the plays of Anton Chekov. The names of the three siblings, as well as their next door neighbor Nina, are characters of Chekov from the plays "Uncle Vanya", "Three Sisters" and "The Seagull." Lines about cherry trees and selling the ancestral home are from the play "Cherry Orchard." Those who know nothing about Chekov's work will not really get lost in the story, but will miss out on those inside jokes.

The play is basically a family drama about growing older. The gloomy sentiments of midlife crisis are familiar but Durang's humorous treatment with some absurd situations and jokes made the misery lighter to bear. The set design of Miguel Faustmann gave their house a rustic homey feel, you will feel the siblings' sentimental attachment to this place.

Michael Williams was so gentle and kind as Vanya, you really feel his sadness and loneliness. You will understand why young Nina (Mica Pineda) empathized with him the most. Roselyn Perez, I've admired for her intense dramatic skill in "A Normal Heart", but her comic timing here as the bipolar Sonia was so lovable. Her Maggie Smith impression was so charming! The way Cherie Gil played Masha, you cannot imagine another actress playing her, as if she was born to play this ironic role. Masha's bitterness and cattiness rolled off Gil's tongue so naturally. 

The Spike character it seems was a stinging criticism of millennial vanity and callousness against the Gen X'ers. He did not really need to be there for the story to work, but the ridiculousness of his character made for effective laughs. Mr. Gold's Gym Philippines 2016 winner Joaquin Valdez seemed to be the natural choice to play his exhibitionistic role, and he played him with naughty glee. He looked very comfortable in wearing only underwear even while cavorting sexually onstage.

The character of the prophetess housekeeper Cassandra was also not entirely necessary for the story, but was nevertheless there to provide some more comic relief. Natalie Everett has been essaying these odd ball weirdo roles in all her plays like "The Game's Afoot" or "Almost Maine" often with mixed results. This Cassandra is the role that I liked her in the most because she is a true eccentric, unlike the others whose weirdness felt forced.

I thought some parts were too long without exactly advancing the story much. Case in point was Vanya's rambling and repetitive soliloquy about his yesteryears in Act 2. In fact, that whole "play within the play" scenario in Act 2 felt awkward and did not really fit too snugly in the narrative, as if Durang was unsure on how to provide his play a proper climax. Then again, maybe I just did not get the "Seagull" reference of this part at all. Overall though, this play was quite entertaining and engaging under the direction of Bart Guingona and thanks to the amazing ensemble of Rep actors who breathed life into its quirkiness.


"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" plays at the OnStage in Greenbelt 1 from January 20 to February 12, 2017 at 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, with 3:30 pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets at P1045 (Orchestra Center), P 836 (Orchestra Sides) and P627 (Balcony) at Ticketworld or onsite.