By Alicia A. Herrera
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Directed by Bart Guingona
Presented by Repertory Philippines
Jan. 20 to Feb. 12
Onstage Theater, Greenbelt 1,
Paseo de Roxas, Makati City
REPERTORY PHILIPPINES’ 50th year is off to a good start with its 80th season opener, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (VSMS), a wonderful comedy that plays to the strengths of the venerable theater company while still keeping things fresh.
It is appropriate that as it turns 50, Rep opens with a play tackling the challenges of middle age. Fifty is often considered the beginning of the end, the start of one’s decline, both physically and mentally, a time when one questions one’s life and existence. It is at this juncture that the audience meets Vanya and Sonia, two of the three children of a pair of academics who loved Chekhov, as seen in the names they were given.
The siblings have lived their entire lives in their family home in a small town in Pennsylvania, and have spent their adult lives taking care of their aging parents. (One must note that while there are many references to Chekhov and his works in VSMS, an intimate, or even passing, knowledge of Chekhov is not necessary to enjoy the play — though it certainly adds a lovely dimension if you do.)
Now that their parents have passed away, the two find themselves stuck. Bored and jobless — they rely on stipends sent by their sister Masha, a successful actress — they exist on autopilot, having coffee in the morning in the veranda as they watch for the blue heron in the pond.
Vanya is an aging gay man who has never come out of his glass closet, while Sonia keeps harping on the fact she is adopted and has never lived. The closest thing to excitement in their world is the presence of Cassandra, their cleaning lady, who, like her namesake, is an ignored prophet of doom.
Into this stagnant existence barges the flamboyant Masha, dragging along — to everyone’s shock — her boy toy, the aspiring actor called Spike, whose propensity for stripping down to the bare essentials both titillates and horrifies Vanya. While the constant PDA between the couple offends the envious Sonia, all might not be well: Masha, with five failed marriages under her belt, is also dealing with the effects of middle age, both in the roles she is offered and in her personal life.
A costume party, the appearance of an effervescent young neighbor, prophecies that come true, and primal cluelessness of Spike eventually shake the siblings awake from their existential stupor. That the audience is in for a good show is obvious as soon as one sees a wonderfully thought-out and textured set by Miguel Faustmann that brings the audience directly into the siblings’ small-town world.
Multi-awarded actor-director Bart Guingona, while best known for his work with dramas, has a great talent for comedy, honed, perhaps, in his early career under Repertory Philippines’ formidable director Zeneida Amador, back when the company presented two seasons a year of comedy, farce, drama, and musicals. This talent is obvious in the choices he makes in this production of VSMS.
But what an audience really cares about is what they see onstage, not what goes on during rehearsals, and what they see onstage in VSMS is a cast full of theater veterans, not just run-of-the-mill veterans but Rep veterans, who basically blow the room away.
In her first comedy (so she said in a talk on opening night), the formidable Cherie Gil shows that she is no slouch when it comes to finding the humor in the tragedy of a diva’s life — though playing a diva is not much of a stretch, she has, after all, played Maria Callas in Master Class and Diana Vreeland in Full Gallop.
Mica Pineda, despite her youth, is a theater veteran herself, with a slew of credits under her belt. She takes the character of earnest aspiring actress Nina, and makes the audience believe that she can inspire Vanya to try something new.
On opening night, Naths Everett’s Cassandra started out wobbly — not quite finding the balance that would keep her character’s quirkiness from appearing as sheer insanity. She eventually found the right register and, by play’s end, had the audience eating out of her voodoo doll-holding hand.
Taking turns stealing the show are Michael Williams as the increasingly discombobulated Vanya — his six-page monologue near the end of the show is a tour de force of hilarious middle age angst that anyone familiar with a rotary phone will relate to — and Joaquin Valdes as the perennially undressed Spike. While one sees, front and center and undulating (and in an amazing reverse striptease), the dedication the actor put into developing his body for the show (and winning a prize at Gold’s Gym in the process), it is his comic timing and utterly believable performance as the lightweight wannabe that wins one over. The interaction between the two actors/characters is a joy to behold.
But without a doubt, the night belonged to Roselyn Perez. Her initial interactions with Williams’ Vanya had the feel of a good TV sitcom about a long-married couple who are sick and tired of each other. Watching her dour, complaining, frustrated Sonia develop throughout the play was like watching a rose start to bloom — when she appears in a shimmering sequinned gown as the Evil Queen hilariously channeling Maggie Smith for the costume party, one wants to cheer her defiance of her sister who wanted her to play Snow White’s dwarf.
The rousing applause that met the cast at the end of the show was well deserved. If the rest of the season is at least as good as its opening play, then one can say that Rep’s mid-life crisis is over. Welcoming back its wandering veterans has infused the theater company with a worldly vitality.