True Silence is the Rest of the Mind: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”

Presented by Titanic Theatre Company
Written by ​Christopher Durang
Directed by Darren Evans
Featuring Shelley Brown, Alisha Jansky, Scot Colford, Eric McGowan, Will Shapiro, and Julia Hertzberg

September 21-October 8, 2022
BCA Plaza Black Box Theater
Boston, MA

Review by Kitty Drexel

“Resumé”by Dorothy Parker
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

BOSTON — Titanic Theatre Company’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is the most intimate version you will ever see. The cast (and their melodramatic breakdowns) places the fourth wall practically on our laps. An audience has no choice but be sympathetic to a cast delivering breakdown after melodramatic breakdown within a short range.  

Durang’s comedy is an offshoot of Anton Checkhov’s most famous plays, but it isn’t a parody.  Vanya (Scot Colford), Sonia (Shelley Brown), and Masha (Alisha Jansky) are brother and sisters reunited to attend a costume party at the Dorothy Parker house up the street in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. To the dismay of Vanya and Sonia, Masha has brought flavor of the week Spike (Eric McGowan) with her from New York City. Spike has found Nina (Julia Hertzberg fresh, sweet and effervescent as strawberry soda) at the pond. No one gets along until they almost do. Cassandra (Will Shapiro) hopes they can read the omens before it’s too late.   

We see more of and from Christopher Durang’s dysfunctional family of big personalities in the Plaza Black Box than we would any other venue. They are feet from our faces. Their imperfections glare at us from under the cruel stage lights. 

These intentionally exaggerated characters cannot hide behind distance or even a complicated set. Designer Marc Harpin keeps his set intentionally minimalistic. The walls are thoughtfully papered with pages from the works of Chekhov, but the rest of the set is decidedly beige. Beige like the family’s skin; beige like their life’s accomplishments; beige like passion for life. 

I’ve seen Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike three times now. I thought I knew this script’s ins and outs. So I was prepared to be pissy as a form of allyship when I saw Titanic Theatre cast a non-Black person in the role of Cassandra. But first, like any half-decent journalist coasting on indignant righteousness, I did a basic internet search. 

Color me chastened when I Googled up a PDF of Durang’s script online. In it, Cassandra is described as a cleaning lady and soothsayer. The role calls for an actor of “any age, any race” (emphasis mine). It notes that the original actor and understudy of the 2013 Broadway production at the John Golden Theater were Black women in their twenties. But, Cassandra need not be Black.  

The Huntington cast Haneefah Wood as Cassandra in its 2015 production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Wood was delightful. The 2016 Arlington Friends of the Drama production cast local actor Sophia Milas. Milas was also delightful. These theatres were following the Broadway production’s tradition. 

Durang, knowing the limits of many small theatre companies, left his character descriptions intentionally loosey-goosey so companies could cast productions, in say Utah, without imploding in a puff of their own whiteness. 

I ask anyone else fanning the flames of indignancy to please write an angry letter to your local politicians instead. Leave the hardworking folx of Titanic Theatre alone. Director Darren Evans cast his show within his rights and the requirements of the script. Will Shapiro took a gig they are qualified to portray and played it with original choreography and great panache. 

The artwork for this production is great.

More theatre companies should cast people of color. They should do it intentionally and consistently because they can. In the case of Titanic Theatre Company’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, my zealous ire was misplaced. I was sniffing out acts of racism like a Karen on a mission. Shame on me for making assumptions about a script I haven’t read in eight years. Please learn from my mistakes. 

Crew: Please leave the AC on in the Plaza Black Box Theater during the performance. It became unbearably stuffy in there during act one. The AC pumped in during intermission didn’t sustain us through act two. The comfort of conditioned air will not take us out of the play. 

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