Comedy From Russia With Lots Of Laughs

If you think the title “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is a bit odd, wait ‘til you see the Christopher Durang play on stage in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Warner Theatre.

The name of the 2013 Tony Award-winning Best Play is taken from characters in plays by Russian playwright Anton Chekov, as is the setting, even though 9 or 10 trees don’t make an orchard. You don’t, however, need a degree — or even an interest — in Russian theater to start laughing.

After the first few uncomfortably familiar exchanges by Vanya (Bill Svelmoe) and (adopted) sister Sonia (Melissa Manier) as they share (?) morning coffee on the porch of the family home in Bucks County, PA. where nit picking and self-pity have become a way of life, you realize its really OK to laugh, and laugh a lot.

As the duo prepares to spend another day of nothing happening, the forecast gets a jolt from the mostly-manic, part-time cleaning lady Cassandra (Marybeth Saunders), who not only predicts the weather but sees storm clouds in the future and warns them to beware of “pootie pie,” an omen that means nothing to either of them. Cassandra is extremely physical and also wields a mean hatpin.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreSonia and Vanya continue to bemoan lost chances. Both in their fifties, they have spent their lives in the family home caring for their now-deceased parents. Neither has a job and are completely dependent on their sister Masha (Lucinda Gary Moriarty), who left home to follow her dream and became a movie star, albeit in slasher films not classics, and who, not incidentally, owns their home.

The morning ritual is interrupted by the appearance of Masha and her boy toy Spike (Brian Wells), who has a problem keeping his clothes on. His flimsy claim to fame is almost being cast in Entourage 2.

Masha’s visit has two purposes: she plans to attend a big costume party given by well-connected neighbors and expects her siblings to accompany her to complete her costume and, oh yes, she plans to sell the house.

Masha’s insecurity takes a hit with the appearance of Nina (Sam Blevins), the neighbor’s niece, who is an aspiring actor and a contemporary of Spike’s.

Things come to a head the morning after the party when Vanya assembles them all to hear a reading of his play, set after the destruction of earth with Nina as a molecule. Declaring he can “multi-task,” Spike texts during the reading and Vanya literally explodes, delivering a rant that covers everything from technology to global warming to Senor Wences and mourns the loss of culture and shared memories and the disconnection of lives. “I miss the past,” he says. “And I worry about the future.”

There is no sound of falling trees to mark the end of this play, only the quiet re-connection of the disparate family, still hoping for better days ahead.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreDirector Jim Geisel has some of South Bend Civic’s veteran best in his cast and they work well together although some tend to go way over the top and arrive at caricature rather than character.

The scenic design by Jacee Rohick provides a well-detailed setting rather more like Florida than Pennsylvania, and there is no mistaking the Disney influence on the party costumes.

“VANYA AND SONIA AND SASHA AND SPIKE” plays through Sept. 27 in the Warner Theatre at South Bend Civic Theatre, 215 W. Madison Ave. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112 or visit

Comedy-Thriller Delivers Surprising Turns

“Deathtrap,” a play by Ira Levin, holds the distinction of being the longest-running comedy-thriller on Broadway.

It ran from February 1978 to June 1982, after which it quickly morphed into a very successful film as did the screen versions of his novels “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Stepford Wives” as well as his first play, “No Time for Sargeants” (a comedy but definitely not a thriller).

The answers as to why this particular “one set, five characters” work should sustain such popularity is offered by Elkhart Civic Theatre with its current production of “Deathtrap” on stage at the Bristol Opera House.

For those who have never seen it, on stage or in film, it will provide an evening full of surprises, or rather I should say of shocks, and thrills.
For those who have seen it, sit back and wait for them. I guarantee a bit of a jolt, even when you know what’s coming.

Deathtrap Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INUnder the direction of Dave Dufour and Randy Zonker, the murderous cast is headed by Marc Adams as established playwright Sydney Bruhl, Brett Noneman as aspiring playwright Clifford Anderson and Stephanie Yoder as Sydney’s ever-anxious wife. Brightening up the proceedings is Angie Berkshire as neighboring psychic Helga Ten Dorp, whose forte is criminal cases, with Michael Case as Sydney’s seemingly stodgy attorney Porter Milgrim.

The less-than-comedic atmosphere is established immediately by John Shoup’s menacing set design, a rustic, overwhelmingly brown retreat complete with stone fireplace and a huge wall hung with all manner of weaponry, mostly from medieval times, apparently in usable condition.

The plot is a play-within-a-play-within-a play and the question is who does what to whom and who will do it next and when.

No one, it becomes clear, is what they seem and right to the final blackout, the twists keep turning!

Deathtrap  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INAdams is properly non-menacing, portraying the playwright in search of another success, living off his one hit, “The Murder Game,” and trying to forget the four failures that followed.

As the money (his wife’s) runs out, his increasingly desperate search leads him to a script submitted by Anderson, a former student seeking advice on his first play titled (not surprisingly) “Deathtrap.”

Bruhl is so desperate that, to his wife’s increasing fear, he formulates scenarios in which he kills Anderson and claims authorship of his play, which he is positive will be the hit he needs.

The tension rises as Anderson accepts Sydney’s invitation to move in with them while they work on the play. In short order, Bruhl puts his fatal plan into action, much to the horror of his wife.

Myra’s fears are not lessened with the appearance of new neighbor Ten Dorp who shares her unsolicited partial visions of the crime and declares she senses terrible pain coming to the Bruhl home. She cautions Myra to be careful.

And that’s just the first act.

As the fatal scenario unfolds it is obvious that no one is entirely innocent when faced with the possibility of gaining fame and fortune. The eventual pile up of bodies, however, does require a sizeable suspension of disbelief.

The cast discharges their assignments with believable dispatch if not a great deal of dramatic tension and the final curtain will leave you still wondering.

DEATHTRAP” plays Friday through Sunday at the Bristol Opera House on SR 120 in Bristol. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 848-4116 or visit

Life Lessons Alive, Kicking On 'Avenue Q'

“Avenue Q,” the Encore Show musical which opened Tuesday evening at the Wagon Wheel Theatre, has been described as the marriage of “Sesame Street” And “South Park.”

For those unfamiliar with either, they are television shows. The former is strictly dedicated to the education of young children using animation, live actors, music and puppets. The latter is totally animated and strictly not for youngsters.

If you can’t imagine how it is possible to meld these two in a live musical production, check out WW’s first-class meld.

Beneath the frequently ribald humor lurk life lessons for adults, young and old. As delivered by the residents of “Avenue Q,” no one is ever too old to learn or, possibly, to re-learn the basics.

Under the direction of Scott Michaels, who also is choreographer, the nine member cast becomes many characters who, although sometimes offered in disguise, most certainly mirror the best — and the worst — in the human condition.

Avenue Q  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw  INAll done to some happily up-beat music and ballads that go right to the heart, delivered by an excellent “post-season” company that could have been playing leads all summer.

Three of the characters (J. Freddie Predmore as Brian, Emily Bailey as Christmas Eve and Tanisha Moore as Gary Coleman, yes, THAT Gary Coleman) are all human, two present their humanity via a single puppet (Matthew Janisse as Princeton and Carolyn Anne Miller as Kate Monster) and four ensemble members (Chistopher Robert Duffy, Javier Ferreira, Jennifer Dow and Kira Lace Hawkins) inhabit — either individually or in pairs — more than a dozen personas. And along with each character goes a different puppet.

Don’t wonder if seeing the “human” behind the puppet on stage will be distracting. After the first few notes, you pretty much forget they are there.

Actually, we all have been on “Avenue Q” at some time or another. Sadly, many still are.

The story centers around recent college graduate Princeton, looking for an affordable apartment and a purpose for his life, who wonders what he can do with a B.A. in English It’s a question he spends two hours trying to answer.

Avenue Q  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw  INAlong the way he finds love (with Kate Monster), lust (with Lucy the Slut played by Hawkins in a hip-flipping, head-snapping homage to Mae West) and the hard facts of life from his friends and neighbors, each of whom declares “It Sucks to Be Me,” and remind him that “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist.”

The truths that hit closest to the mark get the biggest laughs in “Avenue Q,” as evidenced by “The Internet Is for Porn” and “Schadenfreude.” If you can’t translate the latter, the lyrics do it for you.

Brian and Christmas Eve are engaged and Rod (Ferreira) and Nicky (Duffy) are roommates although Rod wishes it could be something more. His attempt to deflect an inadvertent outing, “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada,” is unhappily (and hilariously) frantic and results in Nicky’s outing — to life on the street.

Dow and Duffy inhabit the Bad Idea Bears, whose “helpful” suggestions lead to disaster for Princeton and kindergarten teacher Kate Monster. Hungover, she fails to show up for work and is fired, calling her boss a “crabby old bitch.” The response, “Crabby old bitches are the backbone of this nation,” earned instant applause and laughter from the audience.

Still out of work, Nicky, Princeton and Kate Monster survey their lives from the old age vantage point of 20-something years and decide “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.”

Still searching for his purpose, Princeton finally accepts that even though he may never find it, everything in life is just “For Now.”

Avenue Q  Wagon Wheel Theatre  Warsaw INAs always, Michaels’ choreography turns the really small stage into a wonderful dance floor which the exuberant characters use to full measure.

Set designer Michael Higgins, faced with the necessity of providing the façade of city apartment buildings, found the answer in “high rises.” Each apartment is elevated, keeping the problem of blocked sightlines as minimal as possible.

Musical director Thomas N. Stirling and his “Avenue Q” band make the score a real asset to the production.

This is the final production of the WW 2015 season and one that for so many reasons, on so many levels, is definitely a must-see for adults of all ages. NOTE: It is the only Tony Award Best Musical winner (2003) that closed on Broadway in 2009 and, a month later, opened off Broadway, where it is still playing.

“AVENUE Q” plays through Sunday in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041.