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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Virtual ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ spicy in Oshkosh

Critic At Large

University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre and Radio TV Film

Masha (Autumn Christensen) swirls in conversation with her brother Vanya (Parker Sweeney, left) and lover Spike (Matthew Pepinski) in the UW-Oshkosh production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” (UW-Oshkosh Marketing and Communications)

OSHKOSH, Wis. (WFRV) – Flashy collegiate acting is part of a virtual offering of the quirky comedy-drama “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” performed by University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre.

In a teaming with the university’s Radio TV Film Department, the production is being presented as pay-to-view to Dec. 6.

Playwright Christopher Durang covers a landscape of themes, though not necessarily in this order – family, fame, sexuality, parental caregiving, technology, the environment, values, mythology and a small laundry basket more.

A ridiculous aura floats around the characters through much of the play, but that leads to a realization, a moment of “Oh.”

Now, the video is not a movie. It is a recording of a play as it is being performed on stage at the university’s Theatre Arts Centre without the aid of amplified voices. Especially initially, the players are hard to understand as they perform a bit close to the vest. A few glitches also pop up, like a voice being heard off camera.

But it’s a terrific play, and director Merlaine Angwall of the faculty has the excellent cast well prepared and wound up to deliver the characters’ kaleidoscopic colors.

Alyssabeth Wodack, left, as Cassandra and Briana Gens as Sonia. (UW-Oshkosh Marketing and Communications)

Everything turns around a household in Bucks County (an artsy place), Pennsylvania. Three siblings were named for characters created by Anton Chekhov by scholarly parents who were into community theater (there’s a joke there). Vanya and Sonia cared for their parents to the end, including their father being embattled by Alzheimer’s. Masha was off being “a world-class actress and movie star” to others and a highly embossed, oversexed, selfish egotist to her siblings. In the mix are a soothsayer, an innocent neighbor and Spike, Masha’s latest amore, a walking AC/DC hormone.

Although humor and pithy moments bubble through this production, much satisfaction lies in two elements.

One. The overall envelopment of Autumn Christensen in Masha. She wears the character. Autumn Christensen is a particularly expressive and nuanced and limber performer. She makes Masha haughty – “When I’m not here, you outshine me.” She makes Masha seethe – “No, I am not Norma Desmond.” She illuminates another Masha as she fits into the world of parental caregiving – “I was paying your bills!” And there’s the shocking Masha, too, with five ex-husbands and now a boy toy. It’s quite the role. Well played.

Two. Vanya kind of bungles along. But then, at just the right/wrong moment, Spike’s attention to his cellphone ticks off Vanya. One of the best parts of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is THE RANT near the climax. Parker Sweeney captures all the rage Vanya feels about precious things to him from his times past. Parker Sweeney embraces the laments, the pleasures, the conflicts Vanya expresses: “We used to lick postage stamps!… Have you heard of World War Two?” And more: “Now there’s Twitter and email and Facebook and cable satellite… and the movies and TV shows are all worthless. And we don’t even watch the same worthless things together. It’s all separate. And our lives are… disconnected.”

Samara Markle, left, as Nina and Autumn Christensen as Masha. (UW-Oshkosh Marketing and Communications)

The play is part of the UW-Oshkosh Theatre’s regularly scheduled season, which has the theme, “Love, Guilt and Other Family Values.”


Creative: Playwright – Christopher Durang; director – Merlaine Angwall; producers – Justine Stokes and John Zarbano; stage manager Hannah Olsen; costume designer – Kathleen Donnelly; lighting designer – Mark Spitzer; scenic design – Sarah Wolkoff; sound design – Nathaniel Wolkoff; technical director – Mark Spitzer; TV Video: technical producer – Billy Pietrowski; engineer – Tyler Egnarski; director – Pete Abraham; technical director – Sydney Pomrening; audio and remote camera – Jack Rindahl


Masha – Autumn Christensen

Vanya – Parker Sweeney

Sonia – Briana Gens

Spike – Matthew Peplinski

Cassandra – Alyssabeth Wodack

Nina – Samara Markle

Running time: Two hours, 10 minutes

Note: The pay-to-view ticket for “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” also is good for “The Glass Menagerie.” The plays are available to Dec. 6.


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