I’ll admit it, I was weary going into the Portsmouth Little Theatre (PLT) house last Friday evening to watch their fall production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (VSMS). Despite being good friends with the director and some of the cast, all of whom are actors I know to be some of the very best in the area, I was still unsure of what I was getting into. My anxiety of spending two hours bored was quickly quieted, however, as the six actors performed on a charming set and pulled me into the story, leaving me laughing all evening.
There are some stellar, intelligently written comedies out there that I truly love, after all, one of my favorite plays of all time is “The Importance of Being Earnest,” but I find more often than not they are more complicated to pull off and unfortunately fall flat. There is nothing worse than someone in a flat comedic performance, well, other than the person who is too over the top and needs pulled from the theatre’s fly-space. Simply put, comedy is hard. I should have known better, though, since I was going into a PLT show. I can gladly say this story of ridiculous character names was anything but flat and did a pretty decent job of balancing between funny and not too ridiculous.
I’ll begin my talking points with a discussion of the set, which was, once again, absolutely perfect. Jason Chaney, president of PLT, has seamlessly become the designated set designer of each and every show, but that is definitely a good thing.
Chaney treats each set as if it is its own character. Regardless whether or not the show is minimalist or a more traditional boxed-in set, all work done by Chaney is alive and tells a story of its own through great design.
The large set for VSMS was beautiful and took the guests from a dull, rainy Portsmouth to a beautiful Pennsylvania farm house that was warm, inviting and very cozy. No joke, it was so comforting that I felt better sitting in the old theatre chair as I watched and was pulled into their living room.
The set was full of everything a person needs to be comfortable in their own home, from the ornate decorations on the walls and books lining the shelves to the comfortable furniture and tables holding the daily items you’d see in any home.
The painting was also extraordinary, with stonework painted along all floors and fireplace. The lightly-colored wood that paneled the walls was also a nice contrast.
As for the actors, someone always manages to steal the show and this production was no exception, with supporting actress Kerri Davis making it her own.
Kerri played the role of an eccentric (to say the very least) cleaning lady who also sees the future, foretells terrible omens, and even dabbles in voodoo. When I read her character description, I rolled my eyes, because it is exactly the kind of ridiculous role you see in third-rate, cheap productions that smaller high schools put on. I will clarify, this production was definitely not one of those shows.
Kerri completely changed my opinion of her character with each appearance she made on the stage. Kerri brought this weird character to life and owned it. I think Kerri’s attempt on the character made a difference in some of the other portrayals of similar characters I’ve seen. Davis didn’t seem nervous about her character at all; she became the crazy voodoo lady and sold it to us. We had no option but to believe it was truth. Her scenes were hilarious and truly impressive. I haven’t watched such a performance since I saw Julie Buckler take on a similar character and kill it in “South Pacific.”
I have had the pleasure of watching Kerri in many musicals, but never a play. I am curious to see more of her and I hope she auditions for further opportunities, because I would love to see what she does with different types of roles.
Scott Noel was another actor to really impress me. Scott wasn’t the youngest on the stage, but he was the only new performer. Scott told me he took the role, because acting was something he always had on his bucket list. I’ll repeat it again. Comedy is hard. It is just as hard as stepping on the stage for the first time. I would have never guessed Noel was new to acting.
Noel’s character was pretty placid and low-key for a most of the show, so the role wasn’t anything complicated. That is, until he had to go off on a six page rant that was very quickly paced, wordy, and repetitive. This monologue would likely bring trouble to any actor, but Noel did it so naturally, convincingly, and perfectly. I was beyond impressed with how he carried out his role. He also brought the character to life with his occasional jokes, which were hilarious and successfully hit out of the park. I really hope Noel doesn’t make this a one-time thing, because the community could really use someone like him to widen the opportunities for a variety of shows.
Everyone else in the show was perfect, too. There is typically that one actor on stage who is weaker than the rest and it typically breaks the illusion, but I didn’t witness this in VSMS. All of the actors had marvelous character work and sold their roles to me. I was impressed with the direction and the talent pool in this production.
Two solid moments on stage that honestly sold the show to me were actually times I should have been turned off from it. On two different occasions, actors broke character and couldn’t stop laughing at another actor on stage. Instead of breaking the illusion, it was a wonderful reminder that theatre is rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed, but ultimately spontaneous.
I’m personally calling out Director Leigh Anne Smith losing it in the end, when one of her actors did something that surprised her, but I am also thanking her for it. These moments only solidified the fact that these talented actors are so good at making others laugh that they continue to do it to their castmates months into the show.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” will run for a second weekend this Friday and Saturday. The curtain opens at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are sold at the door prior to the show and online at www.pltlive.com.
Reach Joseph Pratt at 740-353-3101, ext. 1932, or by Twitter @JosephPratt03.