MOUNT DESERT — Perhaps it’s best not to know any Chekhov at all, when attending Acadia Rep’s current theatrical production of Christopher Durang’s Tony Award winning play, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” because a little knowledge can be a confusing thing.
As the play’s name suggests, the show’s three main characters bear the names of characters from two of Chekhov’s best-known plays — “Uncle Vanya” and “Three Sisters.” But they don’t behave like their namesakes.
Vanya, from “Uncle Vanya,” at times resembles angry aspiring playwright Konstantin from “The Seagull,” another Chekhov play. Sonia, the niece in “Uncle Vanya” is now his spinster, adopted sister who sometimes resembles bored Masha from “Three Sisters.” The Masha here is the spitting image of aging actress Arkadina also from “The Seagull.” There’s also a Nina namesake from “The Seagull,” who actually resembles the original eager young actress and…. well, as I said, it’s really confusing.
It’s as if Durang decided to do an updated, American version of a Chekhov play, but couldn’t recall which play was which. But then one remembers that Durang is an absurdist and this kaleidoscope of Chekhovian characters and themes makes a sort of twisted sense.
Here’s the set up. Vanya (Robert Smith) and Sonia (Sarah Zissner) are a 50-something brother and sister living together in the family’s old estate in Bucks County, Pa. — kudos here to set designer Michael Costa for his convincing sun room where the action takes place.
This home is now owned by their sister Masha (Cheryl Willis) a famous actress — think Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts stature here — whose star is beginning to fade. Sigourney Weaver played this role on Broadway.
So, Vanya and Sonia are kvetching about their boring lives, when Masha and her boy-toy Spike (a totally ripped Michael Perlman) blow in for a costume ball to which she’s been invited. Masha has “magnanimously” included her siblings, so they can come as a pair of dwarves to her Snow White. She also drops the bombshell that she is considering selling the house, another theme from Chekhov (“The Cherry Orchard.”)
It should be mentioned here that Durang has also kidnapped the classic Greek tragedy character, Cassandra, and dropped her doom and gloom, soothsaying self into this odd mix. While the part was clearly written for a woman of color — Jamaican, perhaps — Mary Paola puts a fun new-age spin on the role.
Cheryl Willis is hilarious as the overwrought, self-centered Masha. She looks perfectly ridiculous in her Snow White costume as it is a character she has grown too old and too stout to play. There is problem here though. While one might ascribe her notable British accent to actressy affectation, Masha is never as glamorous as she ought to be to convince us of her legendary beauty role. Her make-up is too understated, her hair just hangs there, and her outfits look cheap. So as much as one can enjoy Willis’s considerable acting skills, more effort could be employed to help her look the part.
The other characters — especially Perlman as the hunky doofus Spike— inhabit their roles more comfortably. Sarah Zissner makes the biggest transition. When we first meet her she is a depressed, bland woman who resents having spent 15 years of her life caring for her aging, difficult parents. She schlubs about in her old PJs complaining that she has never lived.
Then, this costume party gives her the chance to change things up. She rejects the dwarf costume and instead outfits herself as the evil queen (as played by Dame Maggie Smith) which turns out to be a gateway to stronger more confident self, ready to make changes in her real life.
Smith as Vanya also undergoes a metamorphosis from a defeated, aging gay man to a firebrand. He rails against the loss of his childhood icons and values in a terrific diatribe that resembles, well, someone from some Chekhov play.
Anyway, after a whole lot of silliness and shenanigans the siblings manage to work things out and as loopy as they all are, we find we care about Vanya and Sonia and Masha and even Spike and leave the theater happy for them, if still a little confused.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” plays through Aug. 12 at 8:15 p.m. with a final 2 p.m. matinee, Sunday, Aug. 12.
Call 244-7260 or visit www.acadiarep.com.