Chattanooga Theatre Centre opens Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Scott Dunlap didn’t intend to see the New York production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. “We’d gone to New York to see Giant at the Public,” he explains, “…during Hurricane Sandy. There was no power. We were standing in line at the TKTS booth to see something else, and I thought, ‘I don’t know, Christopher Durang, it’ll be weird and he hates Catholicism.’” But Dunlap took a chance anyway.
“And at intermission, I was so excited about the show. It’s so funny and so unlike other Durang plays,” he says. In fact, Dunlap liked the play so much, he returned to New York to see it again when it moved to Broadway. When the opportunity arose to direct the 2013 Tony Award-winner for Best Play at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre, he jumped at it. The piece opens Friday on the CTC’s Circle Stage.
Naturally, with a title like that, “V&S&M&S” deals with archetypes drawn from the works of Anton Chekhov. As explained in the CTC’s materials: “Vanya, Sonia, and Masha are three siblings whose artsy parents (now deceased) named them after characters from Chekhov. Vanya and Sonia lived at home to care for their ailing parents while sister Masha traveled the world as an international movie star.
“Now Masha is back with her boy-toy Spike in tow, and she’s intent on selling the house. Add to the mix a housekeeper with second sight and a star-struck girl-next-door and thus ensues a comical weekend in the country.”
Yet Dunlap emphasizes that audience members don’t have to be steeped in Russian drama to appreciate the play. In fact, he says, he’s no Chekhov expert himself. “I didn’t read Chekhov in school. As a theatre person, I knew enough to get most of the references when I saw it the first time, which makes the jokes funny on two levels—but it’s just funny in any case.”
Durang, known for earlier pieces such as “Beyond Therapy” and “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You,” “has mellowed—or maybe the world has gotten more surreal,” muses Dunlap.
His cast (Greg Ramblin, Sr., Julie Van Valkenburg, Kristina Montague, Tom Majors, Maya Abram and Megan Cobb), came to rehearsals with various levels of familiarity with both Durang and Chekhov. “Everyone has done their research,” Dunlap says. “And everyone can relate to unresolved family issues and how family members know how to push your buttons. Something will catch my peripheral vision [in rehearsal] and everyone will be laughing.”
As he usually does, Dunlap is designing costumes along with directing. The play’s characters attend a Halloween costume party at one point, and that’s been an enjoyable challenge, he says. “For example, Masha is supposed to be Snow White, but some people don’t recognize her as Snow White, so how do we show that?” he says. The audience never sees the actual costume party, “but deeper and darker truths come out while the characters are wearing Halloween costumes.”
Durang has always been known for his pop-culture references, and in a time when that culture changes from Tweet to Tweet, even a play written in this decade presents the options of keeping all references as they are, or updating them, Dunlap points out. But that in itself has its own charm, he says.
Ultimately, he thinks audiences will truly enjoy seeing a comedy “that you want to talk about afterwards. That’s rare. I think it will spark conversation about what was really going on in the play.”
And, of course, it’s just darn funny.
Note: The CTC wants audience members to know that this is an adult comedy and contains strong language.
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Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, opens 8 p.m. Friday, June 12 (opening gala begins at 7 p.m.) and runs through June 28. Circle Stage, Chattanooga Theatre Centre, 400 River St. Tickets and more information: (423) 267-8534 or theatrecentre.com