Review of our shows
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
By Kathi Bloy
Playwright Christopher Durang is known for offbeat humor that finds its way into disturbing issues. While today’s audiences probably won’t find “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” truly disturbing, the play delves into a number of social issues, wrapped around sibling relationships.
Definitely funny, the scenes move through serious moments when one almost feels the audience thinking, “I’ve felt like that,” or “Yes, I know what s/he means.”
Vanya, Sonia and Masha were brought up by professor parents who named them after Chekov characters, much to the children’s playground chagrin. When we meet the three, they are all middle-aged or older, and the parents have been gone for several years.
Vanya and Sonia are ably played by veteran actors Fran St. Andre and Nancy Ernst. Having performed in a great variety of roles, each was given opportunities in this play to explore some different ground. Both found the hearts of their characters, working their way into the audience’s hearts as well.
Watching Ernst, an English and public speaking teacher, reinvent herself as the dowdy, forgettable Sonia, who has lost her way in life, was refreshing. Ernst demonstrated an honest wistfulness and sad acceptance that had the audience cheering her one grand, triumphant moment. None of us wanted to be Sonia, but we certainly understood her deep in our souls.
St. Andre was so natural in this part that one would believe him content to live uneventfully in a farmhouse, watching animal life at the pond in the family fields. That is certainly a mark of good acting, as those who know St. Andre would describe him as active, engaged, and greatly interested in events around him.
In stark contrast, Cassandra, the raucous, kaleidoscopic housecleaner, shocks the audience into keen attention the moment she takes the stage. Wonderfully physical, laughing and loud, Stephanie Morelock displays an exuberance foreign and sometimes annoying to the two placid residents of the farmhouse.
Jennifer Koroll plays Masha, the successful, wealthy sibling. Her aloof, almost regal entrance gives way to erratic behavior that reveals a deep-seated lack of confidence. No spoiler alerts here, but the audience will be amazed at the perfect timing of her voice as one scene unfolds. You’ll recognize it when you see the show.
Masha’s self-absorbed, much-younger boyfriend, Spike, juxtaposes her insecurity handsomely. Peter Hargarten brings a robust, athletic performance to the role. His out-there, in-your-face lustiness and extreme physical movements are a bit too much for Vanya and Sonia, and the outspoken Cassandra sees right through him.
Spike’s roving eye is caught, at least momentarily, by Nina, a very young lady visiting in the neighborhood. Samantha Taylor did a nice job as Nina, bringing youthful optimism to the admittedly dreary lives of Vanya and Sonia. We hope she’ll return to the Attic stage soon.
Director Berray Billington has put together a very good production with a cast capable of handling the widely diverse characters. Audiences will appreciate Durang’s realistic look at some of the harsher realities of life, softened with welcome humor.
By Warren Gerd
Some plays come at you – WHOOSH – with unexpected energy and turns. One is “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” starting with that title. All the names end up having meaning for playgoers as jaunty playwright Christopher Durang sweeps through topics ranging from Alzheimer’s and loneliness to vanity and the end of the world – with one of theater’s great rants thrown in.
Attic Theatre Inc. has a comical, charming and lively production running at James Perry Theatre at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley to start its season. The acting and directing are keenly honed.
Creative: Playwright – Christopher Durang; director – Berray Billington; stage manager – Laura Schlichting; production designer – Scott Wirtz-Olsen; sound designer – Dana Mehlhorn; props master – Patrick James; assistant production designer – Alesha Hollatz; technical director – Simone E. Tegge;
Cast: Vanya – Fran St. Andre; Sonia – Nancy Ernst; Cassandra – Stephanie Morelock; Masha – Jennifer Koroll; Spike – Peter Hargarten; Nina – Samantha Taylor
Running time: Two hours, 23 minutes
Remaining performances: 2 p.m. June 12, 7 p.m. June 14-16
Some words of caution: The F-bomb is tossed casually, and one of the characters has a penchant for traipsing in his underpants and flaunting his body. Durang has a way of turning on the electricity.
The play is set in the present in a lodge-type residence in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Hint: Think of Door County and some of the nice digs there, plus the similar atmosphere of arts/intellect and a dusting of celebrity. The residence in this play is up the road from where Dorothy Parker once lived – she being a stellar wit with a sting (something akin to Durang in this play).
Performances hum in this production. Director Berray Billington and the players generate a rhythm; folks know what they’re doing.
In the story, Vanya and Sonia are adoptive brother and sister. They’re coasting along living together in the family home. Their parents are deceased, each after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s that was eased (as best as can be) by the care of Vanya and Sonia. The professorial parents named Vanya and Sonia and their sister, Masha, after playwright Anton Chekhov characters. The catalyst for action is Masha is returning to the homestead. She’s a big movie star with a Cinemascope ego – wide screen and colorful – who has gone through five husbands and now has a lover in tow. That would be Spike, Mr. Underpants.
Durang foreshadows everything because he has an out-there character, Cassandra, who gives warnings with her gift of seeing the future. Everybody should have a fortune-teller housekeeper.
Also drifting on the scene is a youthful neighbor, Nina, representing youth and hope.
Each of the players has nifty sequences, thanks to Durang and his or her ability.
As Vanya and Sonia, Fran St. Andre and Nancy Ernst have an acerbic sibling give and take. Ernst has a wonderful solo scene as Sonia, unattached at age 52 because of dutiful commitments, receives a telephone call from an interested widower. St. Andre’s solo roars with fire as Vanya fumes about all the joys of his youth and common experience that today lay in shards of multichannel viewing, tweeting and texting and disconnecting from one another. It’s an astounding monologue, well played.
As Masha, the STAR, Jennifer Koroll clicks. Koroll’s expressions and manner read like a book: Type A, flashy, self-contained, self-absorbed, headstrong, demanding. Koroll has flourishes and flair.
Another cool role is Cassandra, with Stephanie Morelock applying Jamaican voice rhythms and physical aura. The character sings with impish delights as Cassandra not only sees the future, she changes it with voodoo.
As Spike, Peter Hargarten not only supplies the heat of bare skin but touches of sensuality for Masha and shallowness for the rest of the world. Spike’s a taker, and Hargarten taps into that.
Durang has bizarre elements in this play. Nina, the neighbor, is central in one of them as she enacts the role of a molecule in a play that Vanya has written about the end of the world. Samantha Taylor brings a brightness to this, as she does throughout as a sweet young life.
Before seeing “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” the mind registers ????? about the play. Afterward, it’s “Ahh.” The play is an experience, and Attic Theatre does a fine job of making it so.
Most meaningful part: Realizations of the impact of Alzheimer’s within a family.
Importance of the play: Something wholly dramatic can be told in entertaining and comical ways.
NEXT: “Becky’s New Car,” June 23-26, 28-29
THE VENUE: The 361-seat, two-level James W. Perry Hall features a proscenium (flat-front) stage with a substantial performance area of 36 feet wide by 86 feet deep. Acoustic clouds are part of the ceiling. On the side walls are acoustic panels of copper color that matches the woodwork stain on seat backs and arms and on decorative square and rectangular wood panels. The theater is amply equipped and fairly new. The University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley Communication Arts Center opened in 2009. The adjacent lobby is spacious and includes a ticket office, snack service area, restrooms and spaces for art and photo displays.
THE NAMESAKE: James W. Perry is the former dean and campus executive officer of UWFV.
You may email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV between 6 and 7:30 a.m. Sundays.
Gore Vidal's The Best Man
’Tis the season in America for political hammering and tonging amid the clamor for the office of president, and the Attic Theatre production of “The Best Man” fits right in.
One character’s remark – “I like a circus” – applies to what we’ve been experiencing for, lo, these many months.
The title, “The Best Man,” tells you right off that this play is from the past – 1960. A line makes reference to a women’s place being in the home – an incendiary phrase for many people today. The play drops in many names that have faded from public light. And the style of campaigning today is different. But a good yarn is a good yarn, and playwright Gore Vidal spins a beauty filled with a laundry list of human foibles – and a dusting of attributes involving the larger good.
Director Nancy Ernst has at hand an experienced and committed cast in the leading roles. At moments on opening night Thursday in Perry Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley, the audience was wholly involved in the twists and turns between the leading candidates and the former president who is wearing the mantel of king maker (president maker in this case). This is smart theater.
Creative: Playwright – Gore Vidal; director – Nancy Ernst; stage manager – Nicole Graf; production designer – Scott Wirtz-Olsen; costume coordinator – Berray Billington; sound designer – Dana Melhorn; props master – Patrick James; assistant production designer – Alesha Hollatz; technical director – Simone E. Tegge
Cast: Secretary William Russell – Stephen Savides; Alice Russell – Michelle Kellrooney; Sen. Joseph Cantwell – Peter Tolly; Mabel Cantwell – Rachel Sandlin; President Hockstader – Gary Zurbuchen; Dick Jensen, Russell’s aide – L. Douglas Bord-Pire; Don Blades, Cantwell’s aide – Tim Ernst; Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadage – Kathleen Hannah; Sen. Clyde Carlin – Robert Ernst; Dr. Artinian/Reporter – Keith Duncan; Sheldon Marcus/Reporter – James Frelich; Barbara/Reporter – Ann Caylor
Running Time: Two hours, 32 minutes
Remaining performances: 7 p.m. July 15, 16, 19, 20, 21, 22; 2 p.m. July 17
Gary Zurbuchen is marvelous as former President Hockstader, a Southern, downhome philosopher type. Hockstader’s endorsement will mean the presidential nomination, but first he lets the two candidates dangle a bit and wonder. Zurbuchen finesses Hockstader’s smooth-hick personality. Each candidate is asked, “Do you believe in God?” The reason for asking has an underlying meaning. The character also has a spicy line about his attitude toward sexual scandals by office holders: “I was born on a farm. The lesson of the rooster was not lost on me.”
Stephen Savides and Peter Tolly are strong and thorough as they portray the contenders, each with explosive “goods” on the other. Savides plays former Secretary of State William Russell, who is intelligent, witty, Harvard trained – and sometimes moral. Tolly plays Sen. Joseph Cantwell, who is intelligent, calculating, state college trained/self-made – and cold blooded.
In these three characters, Vidal speaks about the many facets of seeking the office – touching on power, needs and leadership, along with political necessities and ruthlessness. The play is not entirely dated.
Also ably played are other important roles: Michelle Kellrooney as Alice Russell, the philandering William’s wife, who would like to be First Lady; Rachel Sandlin as Mabel Cantwell, the gosh-and-golly martini-loving wife of Joe; and L. Douglas Bord-Pire and Tim Ernst as the hard-working and co-conspiratorial campaign managers of William and Joe, respectively.
The play applies to today and doesn’t apply to today. One line that was a toss-off in 1960 is comical today: “People don’t give a damn about the secretary of state.” Hillary Clinton held that post. There’s talk of the atmosphere being filled with “personalities instead of politics.” Sound familiar?
Names of important figures of the era fill the play. Included are Gen. Eisenhower (Dwight D. Eisenhower, president at the time); Adlai Stevenson (Eisenhower’spresidential election opponent twice); Richard Nixon (before he was president); J. Edgar Hoover (head of the FBI), and Sen. Joseph McCarthy (the Red Scare guy, whose name got the most response Thursday night). Also mentioned are celebrities of the time but no longer, including: Jack Paar (late-night TV king); Walter Winchell (newspaper columnist); Joe Alsop (another columnist); and Henry Luce (publisher of Time and Life magazines). There’s reference to Red China, with which the United States did not have diplomatic relations.
The production does a good job of representing two spacious Sheraton Hotel suites – changing campaign posters and other items when switching from one candidate’s room to the other. Little things in the production would have been unlikely in 1960, such as a ponytail on a male campaign manager and many color photographs in a newspaper.
I had an immediate negative response to the lights in the set. Six wall sconces in the main set, plus another in a hallway, have lights that are so bright that the glare hurt my eyes when watching the actors. It was a challenge to look into those lights for the full play.
That aside, “The Best Man” is an interesting and involving play with a sturdy production. And the play makes the coming Republican and Democratic conventions and election all the more interesting. It is an excellent presidential election year offering.
Becky's New Car
Remember the kid who would make up his or her own rules to games you were playing? One would be Steven Dietz, who grew up and became a playwright. One of his plays is “Becky’s New Car,” a quirky comedy that Attic Theatre community troupe is performing through July 1 in the Lucia Baehman Theatre of the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley.
The production features adept acting. As Becky, Kimberly King is particularly fluid and nimble, and the men who play her husband and grown son (Kris Holly and Adam Baurian, respectively) bring other strengths. The set is intriguing, and the directing by Kyle Conn pulls components together like the laces on the finest of tie shoes.
But those facets don’t make “Becky’s New Car” easy. You need your theater radar tuned to full strength to catch all the important parts – symbolism and such heady stuff – that may not be readily apparent.
The play is funny, smart and an adventure. It imagines what if Becky – or you – could start a whole new life? That new car of the title represents the new life.
Creative: Playwright – Steven Dietz; director – Kyle Conn; stage manager – Katie Marquardt; production designer – Scott Wirtz-Olsen; sound designer – Dana Mehlhorn; props master – Patrick James; assistant production designer – Alesha Hollatz; technical director – Simone E. Tegge
Cast: Rebecca (Becky) Foster – Kimberly King; Joe Foster – Kris Holly; Chris Foster – Adam Baurian; Walter Flood – Tony Salsich; Kenni Flood – Hannah Thompson; Steve – Michael Horowitz; Ginger – Dee Savides
Running time: Two hours, 17 minutes
Remaining performances: 2 p.m. June 26; 7 p.m. June 28, 29, 30, July 1
Back to the rule breaking: Becky can scene-shift at will. Early on, she’s at home and remembers she’s left her cell phone at the office. She orders the lighting person to light the office part of the set, so it seems Becky is there when she goes back to get the phone.
Action starts with Becky speaking with the audience as if the playgoers are in her living room in Seattle. During the course of the play, Becky and others interact with people in the front rows. At one point, three women are invited to form a circle with a cloth so Becky/King can make a clothing change while speaking to the audience.
Becky’s relationships turn complex on a dime. She’s been married almost 30 years to Joe (Holly), a regular guy who is a roofer. They have a son, Chris (Baurian), who is a live-at-home perpetual college student who is given to profundities that fit academic phraseology to everyday behaviors. He knows all, in his mind. Becky has an accountant-type job at an auto dealership that sells top-line cars. One day at the office, a talkative and rich widower, Walter Flood (Tony Salsich), drops in after hours. He’s searching for gifts for his stellar staff. Walter presumes Becky (soon Rebecca to him) is a widow, and Becky can’t get a word in edgewise because Walter speaks so fast. Soon, Walter is on her like jam to toast, thinking She’s The One to replace his beloved deceased. Walter is so rich he buys nine Lexuses (Lexi?), thus earning Becky a new Lexus of her own… and thus setting up the climax much later in this complication-stuffed play.
How does one start a new life? Lie. Or not be up front.
Any number of times, Becky could say she’s married, but she lets that detail slide by and she drifts into a sizzling, flashy fix. If Becky told the truth, we wouldn’t have a play. And we wouldn’t have glimpses into the lives of the phenomenally rich, who include Walter and his neighbor, Ginger (Dee Savides). Walter inherited a fortune and kept it going through the family business of billboards. Ginger inherited a fortune from the lumbering days and spent it all while basically being a useless individual. Now, with no skills, she’s got to get job late in life. Walter’s life includes a fashionable daughter, Kenni (Hannah Thompson), wise in the ways of living with wealth and an impressionable, grieving father. Becky’s life includes a co-worker, Steve (Michael Horowitz), who is dedicated to all things fashionably organic, healthful and for the common good. Steve also is a widower (winds of death blow often in and around this comedy).
The performance space is expansive for the type of play “Becky’s New Car” is. Most action takes place in two locations – forward in the Foster home and in the rear of the space in the auto dealership and the garden area of Walter’s remote home. Becky/King has to do some traveling between the thrust-like forward space and the proscenium space at the rear. Among visuals in the set are the skyline of Seattle (Space Needle included) in the rear and roadway markings on the floor (for when a traveling auto comes into play).
Primarily, the audience is drawn into the life of Becky, and that’s helped a lot by King. She has a voice like a song, plus Becky’s multitude of emotions and thoughts read like a book in King’s expressions and mannerisms. Why Becky does what she does may be hard to decipher, but she’s very well played.
The Lion in Winter
Attic Theatre's 2015 season may be one of its best yet. Audiences will delight in the realism of "The Lion in Winter," the troupe's second offering of the summer.
Set in the 12th century, this dramatic peek into the court of England's King Henry II has enough comedy to keep it from becoming morose.
Sarcasm saturates the dialogue, and intrigue peppers the plot as Henry and his disaffected wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, spar over his adultery (and hers), the foibles of their three sons, and the future of the kingdom. Sibling rivalry rises to new levels when a throne is at stake, and John, Geoffrey and Richard Lionheart make treachery a way of life as they battle for supremacy.
Scott Crane and Nancy Ernst, both veterans of area stages, manage the roles of Henry and Eleanor magnificently. Regal one moment, in the next they fight like "peasants over a scrap," as Henry's mistress, the lovely Alais, puts it.
The daughter of King Louis, she was promised to Prince John and sent to the English court at an early age. While she looks to Eleanor as her "maman," Alais in this play and by many historical accounts, also shares Henry's bed. Rachel Sandlin, who has appeared in other Attic performances, plays Alais beautifully.
Henry and Eleanor's three sons all make their Attic debuts with this show, but none is a newcomer to the stage. Tim Ernst, as the battle-thirsty Richard, has exactly the right build and look for a soldier-prince and carries off the role well. Geoffrey, played by Nick Green, is the nearly invisible middle son, described by his father as more a machine than a human. Slight in build, his mind trumps his brothers' as he plots relentlessly against Henry. Adam Baurain bumbles brilliantly as the youngest, irresponsible and easily intimidated son. All three deliver praiseworthy performances.
Peter Tolly does well as the young King Philip, heir of Louis VII and brother to Alais.
Director Berray Billington should be congratulated on an exceptional production with excellent casting. His decision to do this show "in the round," with audience seating on all four sides, required some creativity in set design. Giving Robin Ostrander a free hand with the set was a good decision.
Using the four corners outside the stage area as entrances, Ostrander designed a chess-board floor, the perfect setting for dialogue describing "a lot of knights" with Alais as the "pawn." Costuming the stage crew in medieval dress made it easy for them to change pieces in semi-darkness without losing the flavor of the 12th-century setting.
Ingenious is the only word to describe the set pieces — large wooden trunks used as seating benches that cleverly hid all the props and made set changes quick and easy. No yawning audience during scene changes here — action on the darkened stage was almost entertaining in itself.
While Ernst does not possess a booming voice and was occasionally difficult to hear, the acting of the whole cast was superb. A few slight stumbles over lines were repaired quickly. One would expect this cast to get better and better as the run goes into its second week.
Billington's direction was just right. His blocking has the cast using every bit of the stage and keeps the audience engaged. This show is a must-see!
Attic director takes new approach to ‘Lion
What: Attic Theatre presents “The Lion in Winter” by James Goldman
When: 7 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, July 14-18; and 2 p.m. July 12
Where: Lucia Baehman Theatre in the Communication Arts Building on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley, 1478 Midway Road, Menasha
Tickets: $16 for adults and $10 for students. Available by calling 920-734-7887 or online at attictheatreinc.com.
Background: “The Lion in Winter” follows Henry, Eleanor and their three sons through intricate political machinations and increasing tensions as they maneuver to determine who the next king will be.
What they are saying: “‘The Lion in Winter’ is my debut with Attic and I am truly honored, humbled and blessed to be part of such an enormous array of talent from my fellow castmates and director,” said Adam Baurain, who plays Prince John. “It has been fun to watch all the elements come together.”
Take-away message: “The Lion in Winter is a play about aging, family and the human need for love, as resonant and relevant to the 21st Century as it would have been to the 12th,” director Berray Billington said. “Times change, but people remain the same. Some of you will notice that we have made some bold choices in our presentation of ‘The Lion in Winter.’ I wanted to present something that was new for Attic, a little bit edgier and not the norm. So I decided to direct the show in the round. Giving the audience a fly-on-the-wall look into the lives of these bigger-then-life historical figures.”
— Compiled by Mara Wegner: 920-993,1000, ext. 255; email@example.com
Father of the Bride
MENASHA, Wis. (WFRV) – Sometimes it’s fun watching other people squirm, in a funny way. That’s the attraction with “Father of the Bride,” being presented by Attic Theatre through June 27 at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley.
Mike Horowitz, playing the father, Mr. Banks, makes watching quite enjoyable. He’s got the part down. That’s apparent early on, when he nails a stare. That stare is one of sudden realization: His little baby girl is getting married, and his/her life flashes before him. Quickly, Mr. Banks discovers his household is out of control as an announced little itsy bitsy tiny wedding for hardly anybody becomes an uncontrollable, wallet-eating virus that grows and grows and GROWS and GROWS to gigantic proportions.
Creative: Playwright – Caroline Francke, based on the novel by Edward Streeter; director – Monty Witt; set designer – Robin Osterander; costume designer – Joyce Coenen; stage manager – Katie Marquardt; lighting designer – Scott Wirtz-Olsen; sound designer – Kurt Schlieter; technical director – Danny Halminiak.
Cast: Mr. Banks – Mike Horowitz; Mrs. Banks – Deborah Oettinger; Kay Banks – Kiana Liesch; Ben Banks – Dalton Zannin; Tommy Banks – Miles Borkowicz; Buckley Dunstan – Amos Huse; Delilah – Gloria Foat; Peggy Swift – Abigail Litjens; Miss Bellamy – Anne Caylor; Mr. Massoula – Ron Lhotte; Joe – Patrick James; Red – Paul Goska; Pete – Tony Salsich; Tim’s Man – Joe Schwaller; Mrs. Pulitzki – Kelly Reisterer; Buzz Taylor – Nikolaus Molchany; Mover 1 – Chris Weis; Mover 2 – Dan Yach.
Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes.
By way of Mike Horowitz, Mr. Banks is a comically tortured soul – voluble, continually suffering and put upon and visited by a long train of What next? Horowitz also looks funny stuffed into Mr. Banks’ too-old, too-too-small formal suit that forces him to waddle around the stage like a penguin in one colorful scene.
A quick thought on the stage: This production uses the full width of the Perry Theatre stage. Wide? The viewing is akin going to a drive-in movie, only live.
A less-quick thought on time: First came the novel by Edward Streeter – 1949. Then came the movie starring Spencer Tracy as the father and Elizabeth Taylor as the bride – 1950 (the year that Attic Theatre started – hoorah!). Then came this adaptation by Caroline Francke – 1951. Attic’s production is played mostly as today, notably in the use of a cell phone for the many phone calls in the story. There are some updated references, such using “Animal House” about a situation. Still in this production is an old name that seems to be beyond compare today – Tommy Manville, who was married 13 times (but try to find many people who know that). Noticeably different today is the story’s live-in maid. While that is mostly something for a bygone era among the upper-middle class, much of “Father of the Bride” applies today for one family after another. Weddings tend to be like the single tuft of crabgrass that becomes a yard full seemingly overnight.
Director Monty Witt has a cast that’s up to the happy task of chasing down the kookiness of this show. Of note are Deborah Oettinger as the hand-patting wife who also helps the Creature of a Wedding grow, Kiana Liesch as the sweet daughter-bride whose promise of SMALL soon becomes LARGE and Ron Lhotte as the caterer whose personality is extra large for all the flitting and fussing.
The play is built on layer upon layer of chaos, and then coasts at the end – nicely. Nicely sentimental