Director Jeff Catanese agrees that there’s plenty of truth to the notion that “great artists steal.” He also believes that borrowing from others’ visions is a double-edged sword, one in which the borrower may think something is a good idea at the time, only to find that it doesn’t particularly serve the play or one’s own production. To combat that issue, the artistic director of Asheville’s Attic Salt Theatre Company has developed a system that so far has proved successful.
“As soon as I am slated to direct a show, I call for a moratorium on all contact I have with any given play, other than the script itself,” he says. “No filmed versions, no YouTube clips — if it’s not in the script, it’s someone else’s idea of what was.”
This approach takes shape in a production of Christopher Durang’s Tony-winning comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which opens Friday, Nov. 6, at 35below.
Catanese and Attic Salt executive director Marci Bernstein are longtime fans of Durang’s work. In 2012, when they heard the playwright had a new comedy and that it was garnering the best reviews of his career, they knew they had to pounce. “Then it won the Tony for best play, among a heap of other awards, and the rights were unavailable for a while,” Catanese says. “As soon as they were released, we grabbed them. We’re happy that we can bring Asheville its first look at this wonderful show.”
The plot of Vanya and Sonia centers on Vanya (Adam Arthur), his adopted sister Sonia (Jane Hallstrom) and their quiet existence in the Pennsylvania farmhouse where they grew up. That tranquility is compromised when their sister Masha (Christy Montesdeoca), a past-her-prime movie star, pays them a visit with her much younger boyfriend, Spike (Henry Williamson). Rivalries are sparked, regrets are voiced — and all of it may or may not have been predicted by their clairvoyant cleaning woman, Cassandra (Amanda Hunt).
If the titular characters’ names sound familiar — with the exception of Spike, that is — they should. The siblings’ parents worked in academia and christened them in honor of characters from Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (Vanya and Sonia, there spelled Sonya), The Three Sisters and The Seagull (both of which include Mashas). Other nods by Durang to the Russian master include a cherry orchard that’s mentioned but never seen, and while Catanese is mum on whether or not a literal “Chekhov’s gun” makes an appearance, figurative ones are present throughout the material.
“The script is definitely tight, so Chekhov’s ideas about nothing present in the play being unnecessary to the final product are certainly at the fore,” he says. “In fact, part of the joy of the show is seeing allusions mentioned in the first act come to a crazy fruition later.”
Durang has called the play “Chekhov put through a blender” and noted that a deep familiarity with the writer’s work isn’t necessary to enjoy Vanya and Sonia. Catanese, who has read or seen most of Chekov’s major plays and guides a cast that’s well-educated in theater history, is in accord with that assessment. He suggests a basic understanding of Chekhov’s themes and style as far as catching some inside jokes, but insists that it’s not required.
“There’s something in this play for everyone,” Catanese says. “Durang’s sense of humor — particularly his irreverence and out-and-out wackiness — has been a draw for decades, to which his great success can attest. This play shows a certain maturing in his writing. I would say a mellowing, except that the script still goes over the top in its hilarity. His characters are more relatable, the script more linear and the situation more relevant than anything he did with his earlier works.”
Catanese says he and Bernstein initially had issues as to how they were going to cast for the ages of the characters but wound up selecting what they’re confident are the best actors for the roles. “Each one brings such a strong voice to their character. Durang already creates such unique personalities, but each of our actors brings them to life in such a way I couldn’t even imagine upon first reading the script,” he says.
Finding the right venue to perform Vanya and Sonia, however, was a far easier decision. Catanese views Attic Salt as a DIY, bare-bones company, a description that dates back to its 1998 inception in New York and has held true in the four years since it relocated to Asheville. The intimacy of 35below’s small black-box theater space matches that style and, Catanese says, affords attendees an opportunity to delve deeper into the characters.
“The audience sits with them and vice versa,” he says. “The emotional interplay between them makes every high higher and low lower. If the purpose of theater is to create a visceral experience for the audience, 35below enhances that possibility.”
WHAT: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
WHERE: 35below, ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Weekends, Nov. 6-22. Fridays and Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. $20