'Vanya': Cold coffee, hot popcorn and an opening this Friday

by John Moore | Oct 14, 2014

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Director Jenn Thompson (in the super-cool shades) with, from left: Eddie Lopez, Kathleen McCall, Amelia White, Lesley Shires, Sam Gregory and Socorro Santiago. Photo by John Moore. To see our full gallery of photos showing "the making of "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," click here

 

Vanya_Jenn_Thompson_300Director Jenn Thompson is an experienced Broadway and regional actor, so she knows what she speaks of when she says making live theatre isn’t always “kismet and magic.”

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, she said of her DCPA directorial debut, “is a really nice stew.”

Her ingredients included assembling a cast from all over the country, and inheriting an entire Denver-based design team.

“That is an unusual circumstance for a director who is coming into a place where everybody is established and has worked together -- and you are the new person,” Thompson said at Perspectives -- a gathering of audience members before last week’s first preview performance of Christopher Durang’s 2013 Tony Award-winning best play.

As a child actor, Thompson played Pepper in the original Broadway production of Annie, starred in the film Little Darlings and appeared in the TV series Harper Valley PTA. She later appeared on Broadway in Ah, Wilderness! and The Heiress and is now the co-artistic director of The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) in New York. So she is more used to mixing her own stew.

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“Often, you bring your own team to a theatre like Denver,” she said. “But here they bring the creative team to you. That is something that is unique here, and it ended up being incredibly successful. But also two of the leads (Kathleen McCall and Sam Gregory) are Denver-based actors who are very well-known to this audience -- but were not known to me at all before I got here.”

Thompson rounded out her cast with two actors she has worked with extensively in the past (Amelia White and Lesley Shires) along with two actors who were new to her who won their roles cold in auditions (Eddie Lopez and Socorro Santiago).

The result, she believes … “is kismet and magic.”

“But it’s a little bit of a psychological experiment, because there is matchmaking involved. We got really lucky with this cast because not only was everyone really well-suited to their roles in terms of their skill-sets as actors, but it was a really fun process. When there is trust there, I find that actors will do anything for you.”

Thompson told the story of how Lopez won his role as Spike, the hunky young boyfriend who seems to spend more time with his clothes off than on. Thompson had any number of beefcake actors to choose from. But Lopez got the job, she said, not just because of what he did with his 15-minute audition, but because he was a nice guy.

“I cast Eddie because he was the one I would most want to be in the same room with for the next six weeks,” she said.

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"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" actor Sam Gregory ... before and after. Scenic design by Lisa Orzolek. Photo by John Moore. To see our full gallery of photos showing "the making of "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," click here


Thompson knew she had struck the right chemistry at the first rehearsal last month.

“It’s always a good sign when actors bring food to share,” she said. “I am not kidding. They brought brownies, popcorn ... And we all go to dinner every Sunday after rehearsal. That is another good sign: When the week is over, and people still want to see each other.”

Dramaturg Allison Horsley called the rehearsal space “a fantastically inappropriate room. It was always funny, and it was always fun.” Thompson termed it “an NC-17 room.”

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a chaotic Chekhovian mash-up, but Thompson said it stands on its own as a serio-comic look at adult sibling relationships.

The story takes place in the Bucks County countryside of Pennsylvania. Siblings Vanya (Gregory) and the adopted Sonia (White), who were named by their eccentric parents after Chekhov characters, are wiling their adult lives away without much purpose. They live at their childhood home off the largess of their Hollywood star sister, Masha (McCall).

When Masha and her boy-toy, Spike (Lopez), arrive unannounced, the residents of the normally quiet household are thrown into comic upheaval as they confront issues of sibling rivalry, regret, lust, love and, of all things … cold coffee.

Not unlike Chekhov, “Durang offers these huge, philosophical questions in tandem with the more mundane misery of everyday life,” said Horsley. “I think it is very funny that Durang’s characters become very upset that the coffee has gotten cold -- and they see that as a metaphor for their lives having been unfulfilling.”

It is Durang’s ability to celebrate Chekhov and send him up at the same that is a big reason Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is currently the most popular play in America. With 27 professional productions slated across the country this season, Durang’s ditty will be produced nearly three times more often than any other play not written by Dickens or Shakespeare.

“But what’s most amazing is that it’s not a parody,” Thompson said. “I think this play is a little bit of a departure for him, because of this Chekhovian flavoring that he drew from for inspiration. There is always an element of pain and sadness in his work, which for me only heightens what is funny.”

For those who might be intimidated by the title, Thompson emphatically stated that it’s not important to know Chekhov to enjoy the play.

“No, not even a little bit,” she said. “I think it’s an enhancement if you do. But you can know nothing about it and go completely along for the ride and enjoy it.” 


John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.


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Director Jenn Thompson addresses her cast after the final rehearsal before previews began last week. Photo by John Moore. To see our full gallery of photos showing "the making of "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," click here


Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Through Nov. 16
Ricketson Theatre
Accessible Performances: Nov. 15, 1:30 pm
Tickets: 303.893.4100 | denvercenter.org
800.641.1222 | TTY: 303.893.9582
Groups (10+): 303.446.4829
Talkback: 3:30 p.m., Oct. 19, Ricketson Theatre
Page to Stage Discussion: Noon, Nov. 4, Colfax Tattered Cover
Higher Education Advisory Council Talkback: 3:30 p.m. Nov. 9
Theatre & Theology: 8:30 p.m., Nov. 11
Book Club Discussion: 5:30 p.m., Nov. 12, Colfax Tattered Cover
Theatre Thursday: 5:30 p.m., Nov. 13, Ricketson Theatre
Events information: Click here

Cast list
Vanya: Sam Gregory
Sonia: Amelia White
Masha: Kathleen McCall
Spike: Eddie Lopez
Nina: Lesley Shires
Cassandra: Socorro Santiago

Our previous coverage of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Durang strikes an unexpected peace with an indifferent Broadway
Vanya ... is the most popular play in America
Vanya ... First rehearsal photos
Check out our Study Guide

1 comment

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  1. Alice Johnson | Oct 27, 2014

    We are season ticket holders. Looking forward to the production but I am tired of seeing Kathleen McCall cast in a leading role once again...and again and again. Her acting is sooo predictable and she plays characters with the same energy, style and delivery...enough already!

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    John Moore
    John Moore
    Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

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