Celebration Company puts on 'quirky' Durang comedy
URBANA — The Celebration Company at the Station Theatre is one of the first amateur theater companies in the country to put on Christopher Durang's new comedy "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike."
To do it justice, the community theater has brought out some of its old guard and some of its new guard for the play, which opens Thursday evening.
And company co-founder and artistic director Rick Orr directs; it's the only Celebration Company play he's helming this season, the company's 42nd.
Orr tapped popular veteran actor Gary Ambler to play Vanya; Ambler hasn't appeared on stage since last summer, when he portrayed Sigmund Freud in "Freud's Last Session" at the Station.
Orr also recruited Barbara Ridenour, retired drama director at University Laboratory High School, to portray Vanya's sister, Sonia.
"When I knew Gary was in it I said yes," Ridenour said. "It's been a long time since I've had a large part. It's a challenge, but with enough practice it comes."
Vanya and Sonia are two middle-aged siblings who live at their ancestral home in Bucks County, Pa. There they cared for their parents, two professors who had dabbled in community theater, until they died.
Their sister, Masha, is a Hollywood actress with a declining career. She owns the family home. Masha returns, threatening to sell the property. She brings with her her boy-toy Spike.
The director cast Max Tomaszewski as Spike; the young actor describes his character as "joyfully naive."
"He's definitely stupid and clueless but he has a spark and optimism nobody else has," Tomaszewski said. "Everybody else is dark and Russian. Spike is more carefree and happy."
Orr had auditions for the role of Masha, choosing Jaclyn Loewenstein. She has professional experience on both sides of the stage.
The mother of two and artistic director of Class Act, a children's theater school in Champaign, appreciates the chance to portray self-absorbed Masha.
"She has the freedom to do and say whatever she wants, not caring what people think of her. It's liberating," Loewenstein said.
"The things she says and does would not be socially acceptable in my world."
This is Loewenstein's first show at the Station.
Lindsey Gates-Markel has had numerous lead roles at the theater in Urbana; in the Durang play she portrays Nina, a young woman/aspiring actress who lives next door to Vanya and Sonia.
"I have to go back to a simpler time in my life to figure out how to play Nina," Gates-Markel said. "She's just very bright-eyed and young and hopeful — in that good way, before anything bad happens to you."
Shawna Smith plays Cassandra, housekeeper to Vanya and Sonia as well as a one-person Greek chorus.
"I've had a lot of fun developing her and trying to figure out what she's saying," Smith said.
Excluding that of Spike, the names of the title characters are references to characters created by Anton Chekhov, the Russian master playwright. Durang has said he sort of put them in a blender and mixed.
However, even people with little knowledge of Chekhov's work will enjoy the Durang comedy, Orr and cast members said.
"If you do know Chekhov you will know how clever Durang is to weave those characters into a modern drama," Orr said.
Spike, of course, has no Chekhovian predecessor. He represents the younger generation — he texts and tweets.
Orr called "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" an important work, and a good one to usher in spring, because it's a comedy.
The original New York production received six Tony Award nominations, winning for best play in 2013. It also won the Drama Desk Award for outstanding play and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best play.
"It's quirky. It's funny. It's Durang," Ridenour said.
If you go
What: Celebration Company presents "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," by Christopher Durang, directed by Rick Orr, starring Gary Ambler, Barbara Ridenour, Jaclyn Loewenstein, Max Tomaszewski, Lindsey Gates-Markel and Shawna Smith.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through April 12.
Where: Station Theatre, 223 N. Broadway Ave., U.
Tickets: $10 on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; $15 on Fridays and Saturdays.
Reservations: 384-4000 or stationtheatre.com.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
Note: Free parking directly across the street courtesy of Save-a-Lot.
More theater on the way
The Christopher Durang play isn't the only theater piece opening this week. The Champaign Urbana Theatre Company will present starting Thursday at the Parkland Theatre the musical "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" (Revised) — a day in the life of the "Peanuts" comic strip. Look for a story on it in e3 on Thursday.
Illinois Theatre, the producing arm of the UI Department of Theatre, will open April 3 "O Beautiful" by Theresa Rebeck, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. In it, historical figures like Jesus and John Adams offer answers to today's hot-button issues like bullying, date rape, abortion, gun rights. New York-based Gina Rattan is guest directing this piece for mature audiences.
Former UI College of Fine and Applied Arts Dean Kathleen Conlin will direct Illinois Theatre's "Much Ado About Nothing," opening April 10, also at Krannert Center. UI theater Professor Bob Anderson will play Dogberry, master of malaprops, in this William Shakespeare comedy that looks at the battle of the sexes through Beatrice and Benedict, one of the Bard's most famous couples.