(L-R): Mark Blum, Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole and David Hull in Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning play ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.’ (Craig Schwartz Photography)

(L-R): Mark Blum, Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole and David Hull in Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning play ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.’ (Craig Schwartz Photography)

No wonder it won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play! Christopher Durang’s “Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike” is a laugh-riot ensemble piece that plays like jazz, with standout solos in the form of monologues.

Now at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in downtown L.A., this play draws on the framework of Chekhov classics, “Uncle Vanya” and “The Cherry Orchard,” that sit at the fulcrum of societal transition, highlighted by class and age distinctions and the changing of the times.

Durang transposes the Russian estate setting to a country house in rural Pennsylvania (replete with a couple of cherry trees that stand, in Sonia’s mind, as an orchard).

Vanya and Sonia (she’s adopted and overlooked), who were named by their professor parents for Chekhov characters, live in the family’s old house where famous but fading movie star sister, Masha, pays their way. This is partly in exchange for the care that spinster Sonia and closeted Vanya gave their ailing parents for years, while Masha was off living a life that they can’t begin to imagine.

But how good is Masha’s life? And who’s that boy-toy she’s brought home with her? Who’s more woeful and why, and the hilarity that this dynamic produces, is the secret sauce of how Durang does what he does so brilliantly.

As in the Chekhov plots, Masha comes home to drop the bomb on her two inertia-bound siblings: she’s getting ready to sell the house. What will they do? Especially as warnings have been coming their way thanks to a housekeeper called Cassandra, who lives up to her mythical name as the in-house soothsayer.

You don’t need to know Chekhov’s plays to laugh like a hyena at this production. Its humor stands completely on its own, and the actors really know their stuff (minus two little fluff-ups by Christine Ebersole as Masha).

Cassandra is played by the show-stealing Shalita Grant, whose head bumping up against the invisible force field of her visions and voodoo doll antics are comically spell-binding (pun intended).

Kristine Nielsen as Sonia absolutely kills when she channels Dame Maggie Smith (think “Downton Abbey”), using her amazing voice to demonstrate her character’s bipolar nature. Mark Blum as Vanya, a would-be, deep thinking playwright, delivers a blistering (but too-long) monologue on stamp licking.

Ebersole as Masha succeeds in establishing sympathy for her utterly selfish and narcissistic B-movie actress, and Mark Hull as the dumb but hot young actor looks great without a shirt, giving Masha an inevitable comeuppance.

Without even mentioning the rabbit hole into which the characters fall as they appear dressed for a costume party, you’ll thank me for recommending that you book a seat immediately to see “Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike” at the Mark Taper Forum through March 9. Tickets at www.centertheatregroup.org or the box office at (213) 628-2772.

The history of the Passion Play begins in the 13th century and continues through today. This depiction of the “passion” — the suffering of Jesus on the cross — began as religious ritual and transmogrified into staged dramas that took place, at first, in the public square and later developed in sophistication and stagecraft over the centuries.

Of course over those centuries “passion” has taken on an entirely different meaning, and playwright Sarah Ruhl filters that double meaning through the lens of religion and politics to construct her own “Passion Play,” now onstage at The Odyssey Theatre.

Her springboard is the production of a passion play during three different historic eras, Elizabethan England, Nazi-era Germany and the Reagan years in America.

The characters remain the same in each: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Pontius Pilate and “the director,” each of whom reflects an era-appropriate personality.

But the drama takes place offstage amongst the actors themselves, in the context of the religious, political and moral atmosphere of the times.

The actress playing Virgin Mary gets pregnant and complications ensue. And each time period involves a visit from the prevailing political leader: anti-Catholic Queen Elizabeth after banning productions of the Passion Play; Hitler visiting the most famous Passion location in Oberammergau, Germany; and Ronald Reagan making a campaign stop in South Dakota where a local production unfolds.

This is a smart, complicated plot that is ambitious, intelligent, engaging and entertaining. But it’s a really long play, and the night I saw it for at least the first act, I think it missed the mark in matching Bart Lorenzo’s direction to the actors’ delivery of Ruhl’s text.

However, if you like your theatre both thought- and laugh-provoking, this is the play for you. In association with The Evidence Room, Sarah Ruhl’s “Passion Play” kicks off the Odyssey’s 45th anniversary season, which is quite an accomplishment in itself. It runs Fridays through Sundays, through March 16. Call (310) 477-2055 or visit www.OdysseyTheatre.com.

 

Vermeer: master or mirror?

 

Throughout art history, the great question has been whether Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer was a genius or just a master of mirrors. The mystery has been theorized and written about, discussed and dismissed and now, quite possibly, solved.

Vermeer’s limited number of gems far outshone work by his contemporaries with their intensely realistic depiction of light. They also seem to have taken place in the same room, featuring same Northern light and at least some of the same models.

In the documentary film “Tim’s Vermeer” Texas technology inventor Tim Jenison, who’s never been a painter, goes through all the steps of learning how to use brushes, mix his own paints, and recreates the room in which Vermeer painted “The Music Room.” And with the mirrored instruments that he has created to mimic Vermeer’s conditions, paints a brand new Vermeer perfectly.

This isn’t a dull esoteric movie, it’s completely fascinating and amazing. “Tim’s Vermeer” plays at The Landmark in West L.A. for a limited run. Do not miss it.

 

Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.

 

 

 

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