Geneva Anderson digs into art

review: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”—an hilarious reflection on the what-ifs in Chekhov, at Berkeley Rep through October 25, 2013

(l to r) Leading Bay Area actor Anthony Fusco (Vanya), award-winning actress Lorri Holt (Masha), and stage and TV actor Mark Junek (Spike) star in Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Berkeley Rep through October 25, 2013. Photo courtesy of

(l to r) Leading Bay Area actor Anthony Fusco (Vanya), award-winning actress Lorri Holt (Masha), and stage and TV actor Mark Junek (Spike) star in Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Berkeley Rep through October 25, 2013. Photo courtesy of

There are very few Chekhov shows that have the audience busting out in laughter, but that’s exactly what happened last Wednesday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s regional premiere of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the Broadway blockbuster from Obie Award-winner Christopher Durang.  Richard E.T White, who directed numerous productions at Berkeley Rep between 1984 and 1993, is back at the helm for the staging of this delightfully zany production.  I can’t think of a recent Berkeley Rep performance that I’ve enjoyed more.  Demand has been so strong that the play has been extended through October 25, 2013.

Durang, the renowned author of rollicking comedies such as Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (1979) and The Marriage of Bette & Boo (1985), has described his farcical family drama as “Chekhov in a blender,” referring to the fact that he took his characters and themes from the Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov but set them in present-day Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he actually resides with his long-time partner.  The play draws on characters and themes from Chekhov’s most popular works—Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Seagull, and Cherry Orchard.  Durang cleverly combines elements of those stories, asking the “what-if” questions that Chekhov’s characters themselves might have asked about the trajectories of their lives had Chekhov not penned them another way.  It’s not essential to have read Chekhov or seen any of these plays but if you have, you’ll get a lot of more of the references. To keep it popping, and in sync with his own signature of outrageous, Durang added loads of great one-liners, a great voodoo pin-stabbing doll scene, crazy storybook costumes, wild impersonations, and boy-toy eye candy.

Beloved Bay Area actors Anthony Fusco and Sharon Lockwood portray Vanya and Sonia, the two terminally melancholic siblings anchoring the production.  They got their names from their community college professor parents who were enamored with Chekhov.  They dawdle through their days in their family’s peaceful Bucks County farmhouse performing such rituals as morning tea and daily bird watching while bickering like an old married couple.

Lockwood gives a priceless tender and comedic performance as Sonia, the dutiful adoptive spinster sister, who bemoans the fact that life has raced by while she’s has been stuck on the farm caretaking.  At least, she’s got her beloved cherry orchard.  There are 10 struggling cherry trees way out back which Sonia insists constitute an orchard and Vanya insists don’t.  So Chekhovian…and not.

Vanya, a struggling writer who keeps his play hidden in the parlor, is brought to pitch-perfect life by Fusco.

There’s also Cassandra, their belligerent but good-hearted servant who is brought to life by the bright energy and stage presence of Heather Alicia Simms.  Cassandra doesn’t cook much but, like her Greek namesake, she’s a psychic whose pronouncements are heeded.  She also happens to whip up a mean voodoo doll.

(l to r) Bay Area actors Anthony Fusco (Vanya) and Sharon Lockwood (Sonia) portray siblings in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, this year’s Tony Award winner for Best Play, at Berkeley rep through October 25, 2013.  Photo courtesy of

(l to r) Bay Area actors Anthony Fusco (Vanya) and Sharon Lockwood (Sonia) portray siblings in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” this year’s Tony Award winner for Best Play, at Berkeley rep through October 25, 2013. Photo courtesy of

The whole play transpires in an expansive wood-and-stone home, with gorgeously appointed wicker furnished sunroom by set designer Kent Dorsey, with lighting by Alexander V. Nichols.

The anxiety-ridden question of the moment is how Vanya and Sonia will handle the pending visit of their sister Masha (Lorri Holt), a Hollywood B-movie star, who made her career in the “Sexy Killer” film franchise and who’s been footing all their bills.  These middle-aged dependents worry that she’ll sell the house and leave them homeless. When glamorous Masha arrives, it’s in grand style— she’s dressed in sophisticate clothing, is full of interesting conversation (about herself) and is accompanied by her dim-witted hunky young lover, Spike (Mark Junek).  Masha is not really there to see Vanya and Sonia but to attend a costume party down the road at Dorothy Parker’s house and to show off.

Masha triggers jealousy and longing in frumpy Sonia.  Preening Spike triggers carnal urges in Vanya.  Enter Nina (Caroline Kaplan)—the sweet, sincere and very comely neighbor, straight out of The Seagull, who draws Spike’s attention away from Masha and ignites Vanya’s literary passions.  In the shadow of Nina’s radiant natural beauty, Masha’s anxieties about aging quickly come to the surface.

As they all prepare their costumes for the party, the play achieves comic brilliance.  To ensure that she will steal the show as Snow White, Masha tries to control what everyone else wears, insisting they go as her attendant dwarfs, with the exception of Spike who is to be Prince Charming.  Costume designer Beaver Bauer’s Disney Snow White costumes are delightful.

Sonia’s priceless moment of ascension comes when she defies Masha, steps out of her sorry self and dons a sparkly evening gown to channel Maggie Smith, “on her way to claiming an Oscar in California Suite.”  And does she shine, so much so that she attracts some long-overdue male interest.

Vanya’s moment comes when Nina gives the group a read-though of his secret play about a molecule…a slow existential boiler whose enactment is rudely interrupted by Spike’s texting.  The cell phone incident triggers Vanya’s inspired rant about horrors of the modern technology.  It all neatly ties in with Chekhov’s main themes in The Cherry Orchard— the inescapable forward march of time and the arrival of progress into the change-resistant cherry orchard.  This full-on comedy, with as much depth as you want to give it, is a wonderful way to celebrate the start of Berkeley Rep 46th season.

Run-Time is 2 hours 45 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.

Creative Team:

Kent Dorsey (scenic designer) has designed sets for a number of Berkeley Rep productions, including The Alchemist, For Better or Worse, Serious Money, The Importance of Being Earnest, Dancing at Lughnasa, Mother Jones, and Blue Window. Beaver Bauer (costume designer) has designed several Berkeley Rep productions: What the Butler Saw, Tartuffe, Blue Window, In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe, Rhinoceros, The House of Blue Leaves, and Menocchio. Alexander V. Nichols (lighting designer) returns to Berkeley Rep for his 26th production. His theatre credits include Berkeley Rep’s production of Wishful Drinking here and on Broadway, Hugh Jackman Back On Broadway, and the off-Broadway productions of Bridge and Tunnel (also at Berkeley Rep), Horizon, In the Wake, Los Big Names, Taking Over, and Through the Night. Composer Rob Milburn and sound designer Michael Bodeen composed music and designed sound for Berkeley Rep’s previous production, No Man’s Land, which moves to Broadway this fall.  The stage manager for the production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is Michael Suenkel, Berkeley Rep’s resident production stage manager.  Executive producers are Bill Falik and Diana Cohen.

Details: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike has been extended through October 25, 2013 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances are Tues-Fri at 8 PM and Sat at 2 PM and 8 PM and Sun at 2 PM and 7 PM.  Tickets: $29 to $89.  Discounts:  Half-price tickets available for anyone under 30 years of age; $10 discount for students and seniors one hour before curtain.

Parking:  Paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is accompanied by a free voucher ticket that is available in the theatre lobby.  These new tickets accommodate the newly automated parking garage’s ticket machines and are available in a pile located where the ink stamp used to be.

October 2, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Zayd Dohrn’s “Reborning” at SF Playhouse, an artist creates life-like infant dolls that serve as a form of therapy for her select clients, May 9- June 11, 2011

Lorri Holt, Baby Eva & Lauren English in Zay Dohrn's "Reborning" which has its world premiere at SF Playhouse. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Cleaning up the unfinished business of the emotional past  is the theme of Zayd Dohrn’s engrossing play Reborning which had its world premiere Saturday at SF Playhouse.   This brilliantly acted drama takes an unsettling look at wounding from childhood and mothering experiences that can linger and enmesh adults in sadness, anxiety, obsession, and addiction.  Reborning also exposes the audience to a very unconventional healing path.   Continuing on a season that has offered one  provocative performance after another, Susi Damilano and Bill English, who run SF Playhouse, have found an exceptional talent in Zayd Dohrn.  Dohrn, the son of former Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, has won the respect of audiences and critics all over for his plays, several of which  harken back to issues in childhood.

Reborning is the story of Kelly (Lauren English), a twenty something artist whose “Little Angels Nursery” fabricates custom made infant dolls for clients who have lost a child or have a need for a replica of a child and of Emily, her client who commissions a custom doll.  The play unfolds on multiple levels as it explores the fascinating and obscure real-world reborning phenomenon which most of us probably have no idea even exists. Grossly simplified, reborning is an attempt to recreate and relive the past.  Artists fabricate unbelievably lifelike human infant dolls that fill certain psychological needs for them and for the clients who buy them.  Clients commission custom-made dolls or “adopt” already created baby dolls.  They then live with and care for them as they would real infants.

In Zayd Dohrn's "reborning" which has its worldpremiere at SF Playhouse, Lauren English plays Kelly, an artist who creates reborning dolls. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

In Reborning, Kelly’s special artistic talent for satisfying her clients’ exacting demands by replicating dolls solely from photographs is what she stakes her reputation on.  The play opens with a highly unsettling image—Kelly is crouched over a worktable, surgically implanting individual eyelashes into her baby’s eyelids with sharp puncturing tools, finishing flourishes on her latest artwork.  Her process is cleverly made available to the audience through a camera set-up that magnifies everything in gargantuan detail for her on a large screen.  And the details are astonishing—a life size latex baby replete with wrinkles, folds, drools, and hair whirls is painstakingly painted with layers and layers of paint right down to its flaking skin and unique retinal patterning. 

The play focuses on her relationship with her client Emily played masterfully by Lorri Holt–who appeared last year at SF Playhouse in Rajiv Joseph’s Animals Out of Paper.  Emily is a brusk 50-something career woman who lost her infant daughter Eva some 25 years ago, and has commissioned Kelly to create a replica.  When Emily expresses some reservations about the quality of Kelly’s work, a whole range of emotions are triggered that send Kelly spiraling back into her own tragic childhood abandonment—she was stabbed and left for dead in a dumpster.   As Kelly begins to suspect that Emily is her birthmother, and that she has actually been commissioned to replicate her own infant self, she turns to familiar coping mechanisms—drugs and alcohol.  There is something in Emily that we can all relate to–she was thrown in a dumpster at birth but we’ve all been dumped at some point in our lives by people we should have been able to count on.  The sting of that can really mess with the mind and resurface in subsequent relationships.      

In "Reborning" Kelly (Lauren English) and Daizy (Alexander Alioto) find their sex drives out of sync when Kelly starts to process her childhood wounding. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

In "Reborning" Kelly (Lauren English) and Daizy (Alexander Alioto) find their sex drives out of sync when Kelly starts to process her childhood wounding. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

The play is loaded with poignancy and layers of symbolism.   If you’ve ever done therapy around childhood trauma, you may be familiar with any number of therapeutic processes that encourage revisiting the past and nurturing your inner child as a form of self-healing.  On one level, merely watching Reborning fast-tracks the cathartic aspect of this process.  Kelly’s and Emily’s visceral interaction with baby Eva, who symbolizes different aspects of the wounded self, and with each other is painfully real.  Dohrn’s ability to write these utterly complex female roles so believably, as if he’s right up inside their heads and defenses, is uncanny.  

Kelly’s partner, Daizy, (Alexander Alioto), is also meticulously crafted as a loving and devoted, but basically helpless, witness to her meltdown.  Daizy, who has neither experienced Kelly’s painful trauma around abandonment nor Emily’s maternal loss, is the vehicle through which the young couple’s issues around intimacy and childbearing are brought out.  He wants to talk; she wants to escape.  His humor provides relief from the paralyzing  pain playing out on stage and his courage to support his woman through validating her process is a message all partners need to heed. 

Directed by Josh Costello. Set Nina Ball; lighting, Michael Palumbo; sound design, Cliff Caruthers; video, Kristin Miltner; costumes, Miyuki Bierlein, props, Jacqueline Scott; doll designers, Cher Simnitt, Stef Baldwin, and Illusions of Life.

Details: Reborning runs 85 minutes without intermission. The SF Playhouse is located at 533 Sutter Street (one block off Union Square, between Powell & Mason Streets).  Performances: Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., plus Saturdays at 3 p.m.  Tickets: ($30-$50) SF Playhouse box office (415) 677-9596, or

May 9, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment