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Vanya and Masha and Sonia and Spike

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Anton Chekhov is considered one of the world’s great dramatists and writers of short stories. A physician by profession, Chekhov once said “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.” American playwright Christopher Durang has been inspired by the good doctor and scribe to the extent that he has taken some classic Chekhovian themes and characters, updated the proceedings to the current era, and placed them in his own home community of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The result is the two and-a-half-hour comedy called Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike, now in production at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, through March 9.

When it made its New York debut last year, Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike was directed by Nicholas Martin and starred David Hyde Pierce as Vanya and Sigourney Weaver as Masha.  Now, in its West Coast premiere, directorial duties have been assumed by Hyde Pierce (using Martin’s original directorial template as a guide). The loquacious character of Vanya is currently being played by the energetically nuanced Mark Blum, while the self-obsessed Masha is being ably portrayed by the well-timed Christine Ebersole. David Hull has the scene-robbing role of Spike in this LA iteration. Only Kristine Nielsen, playing sadly comedic Sonia; Shalita Grant, as voodoo housekeeper Cassandra; and Genevieve Angelson, as aspiring actress Nina, remain from the Broadway cast.

Like present-day holdovers from Chekhov's characters from a century ago, middle-aged Vanya and Sonia (brother and sister through adoption) have led sheltered lives in the country home where they were raised by their now deceased parents; both of the parents were college professors, amateur actors, and devotees to Chekhov, so much so that they named all of their children after Chekhovian characters. Masha, the most established of the offspring, has achieved a level of notoriety as a star of cinema, and she is the one who foots the bills for the house’s upkeep and her brother and sister’s living expenses. When Masha declaims that it’s time to put the house up for sale, now that her film residuals are drying up, Vanya and Sonia are facing a future that may be more despairing  than their unfulfilling  past or the unhappy present. What’s more, the situation is aggravated by the presents of forty-something Masha’s twenty-something boy toy, Spike.

Exploring the existential themes of Chekhov – alienation, middle-age despair, social insecurity – playwright Durang cleverly transposes the angst of life in Chekhov’s Russia of a century ago to the anxiety of modern day America. It’s a surprisingly snug fit. What’s more, though Chekhov insisted that many of his most trying tales were intended as comedies, it’s easy to miss the humor in his piercing conceits. This is not the case with Durang’s Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike. From the starting guffaws elicited from Sonia’s expressed depression; to Masha’s elementary explanation of the difference between film and stage acting (“In film you are acting in front of a camera and you speak in a normal voice. Onstage you are in a sort of wooden box in front of people looking at you, and you must speak more loudly – so they can hear you”); to Vanya’s final monster monologue comparing yesteryear with now, Durang has created an unmitigated comedy using the raw material that Dr. Chekov himself used so well: human beings enduring life’s unwelcoming challenges.

Such an approach revolutionized theater a hundred years ago, and though Checkhov may not be revolutionary, it does make for a good time in the theater.

Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike continues at the Mark Taper Forum, through March 9. The Mark Taper Forum is located at 135 North Grand Avenue, Los Angeles. Evening performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 6:30 p.m. Matinees are Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. For reservations, call (213)628-2772. For online ticketing and further information, visit




Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”


Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.