8 reasons to see Jobsite Theater’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Jobsite Theater continues a tradition of unconventional theater offerings with Christopher Durang’s conventionally lauded Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Play that is no less weirdly wonderful than Jobsite’s other offerings.

The farce by satirist Christopher Durang endeared Broadway for the same cynical and cathartic reasons  Iñárritu‘s Birdman won the Oscar last year: It’s a non-stop riff on stage and showbiz life — its pitfalls, embarrassments and pet peeves — that satirizes  everything from narcissism to elitism to lame auditions to fading celebrity while managing to convey poignant insights on aging, mortality and family bonds.

Vanya and Sonia works on many levels if you can approach it with an open mind, sense of humor and let go of preconceived notions about how a play should play out on stage.

Here are some other reasons to see the latest production of the Straz Center of Performing Arts’ resident theater company:

Anton-Chekhov1.) It’s a treat for Anton Chekhov fans: If you didn’t figure it out reading the title, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is an absurd and affectionate send-up of works by the Russian playwright and his famous plays, including  The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. The story centers on siblings raised by a theatergoing parents (hence the character names) and offers similar eruptions of neuroses in a rustic setting. There’s even a scene when Roz Potenza’s Sonia professes, “I am a wild turkey!” which is a humorous homage to Chekhov heroine Nina’s famously self-actualizing line, “I am a seagull!”

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From left: Roz Potenza as Sonia, Jonelle Meyer as Cassandra and Brian Shea as Vanya. Photo by Crawford Long.

2.) Jonelle Meyer as a wacky psychic: She is one of the funniest women alive and we’re lucky to have her here in Tampa Bay. As the hippie housekeeper Cassandra in Vanya and Sonia, Meyer lives up to her mythological name as a seer no one takes seriously. She plays the role big with her signature bug-eyed, animated physicality and verbal dexterity that endeared us in past productions of Almost an Evening and The Divine Sister, recalling our favorite uninhibited comedy heroines from yesteryear like Madeline Kahn, Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett but with a fierce ownership of the stage that is all her own.

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Potenza, Elizabeth Fendrick as Masha, Shea and show-off Spike played by Jamie Jones. Photo by Crawford Long.

3.) Jamie Jones as a ridiculous boy toy: The nimble and deep-voiced Jamie Jones is one of our area’s most versatile actors. One moment he’s the handsome love interest of celebrity Masha, the other he’s a self-absorbed, IQ-deprived aspiring celebrity and exhibitionist peacocking all over the stage in tighty-blackies, thrusting his junk in Brian Shea’s face. Like Meyer, he delivers comic relief with brilliant physicality and ingeniously meta overacting. It takes boatloads of talent to deliver over the top performances without grating on the audience’s nerves, and both Jones and Meyer elicit big laughs as their ridiculous characters.

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Potenza and Shea as Sonia and Vanya. Photo by Crawford Long.

4.) The sensical relief of Brian Shea’s Vanya: Brian Shea plays the rational if inhibited older brother who brings sanity to the play. He’s a skilled actor with an enviable ease once again, and in the second act, he delivers an epic monologue (too long by conventional standards, an “in your face” to critics) that laments the good old days of rotary dial phones and wholesome sitcoms, pre-ADD-enabling bursts of device-driven communication.

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Elizabeth Fendrick as Masha shows her disappointment after being showed up as the belle of a costume ball. Photo by Crawford Long.

5.) Elizabeth Fendrick as a diva: Okay, so this list is basically praising all the performances in the play, and rightfully so. Fendrick starts out arrogant and shallow but undergoes an arc that eventually makes her sympathetic to the audience. When her costume party Snow White is confused for Norma Desmond, we simultaneously laugh and feel a twinge of sympathy.

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Emily Belvo as Nina and Jones’ Spike. Photo by Crawford Long.

6.) Emily Belvo as the spazzy neighbor Nina: As with her animated castmates, it takes a certain measure of talent to pull off an over-the-top role, and Belvo is adorably perfect as the aw-shucks, adulating young neighbor and aspiring actress. Durang belies her supposed naivete with more sense and inner equilibrium than her older counterparts, showing us that people are often more than their “type.”

7.) Another first rate set and exceptional lighting by Jobsite: Kudos to Patrick Barnhart (Lighting Assistant Intern), Ryan Finzelbar (Lighting Designer), David M. Jenkins (Sound Designer) Amara Manickchand (Associate Lighting Designer), Brittany Reuther (Costume Designer) and Brian M. Smallheer (Scenic Designer). Together, they re-create a believably homey cottage porch in the backwoods of Pennsylvania replete with tree branch shadows  and nostalgic Beatles tunes.

8.) The Potenzas: One of local theater’s most beloved couples collaborate to make this show great. Paul Potenza, the award-winning actor who wowed us with his kpaul-and-roznockout performance as a dying curmudgeon in Jobsite’s Annapurna directs this first-rate production that includes wife Roz as Sonia. Roz’s Sonia is a bit awkward and stares at the ceiling as if she’s ruminating on a million things while she’s speaking, but we begin to get to know her as much more than a reclusive eccentric. She comes out of her shell at a costume party portraying Maggie Smith on Oscar night, accent and all. Come to think of it, the world would be a better place if more Sonias were given a second look the way Durang lovingly unravels this sweetly flawed heroine. Paul lends his acting intuition to his direction by humanizing a play that tinkers more with ideas than the nuances of interaction, but ultimately succeeds in doing both.

All photos above by Crawford LongShow times are 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Thursday and 4 p.m. Sunday, through March 20 at the  Straz Center’s Shimberg Playhouse, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa. Tickets are $28 (discounts available); call (813) 229-7827; visit strazcenter.org or jobsitetheater.org

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Broadway tour of Matilda the Musical brings the endearingly twisted wit of Roald Dahl to the Straz Center

The winner of four Tony Awards continues its run through Sunday. Review by Julie Garisto.

Matilda the Musical, a Dickensian-lite tale of a young genius who uses the power of her mind to defy unfortunate circumstances, can be seen through Sunday at the Straz Center of Performing Arts in downtown Tampa.

From its first note, the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel charms with ear-wormy Oliver!-style anthems and darkly cartoonish characters, like those in Tim Burton (Nightmare Before Christmas) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children) movies. Skewed Scrabble tiles pile high in a surreal backdrop as a mostly young cast entertains with impeccable choreography and vocal harmonies.

Matilda the Musical follows the childhood of precocious and imaginative British girl born to boorish parents (Quinn Mattfield and Cassie Silva) who horribly mistreat her. Their crass neglect and verbal abuse, and the scowling and ridiculously mean headmistress of Matilda’s school (portrayed hilariously by male actor David Abeles) are over-the-top funny.

The show’s star Lily Brooks O’Brient belted out admirably in the title role. (The actress alternates dates with Sarah McKinley Austin in the title role.) Jennifer Blood as sweet Miss Honey gives the show’s most heart-rending turn and also gives a mighty vocal performance. The only disappointment performance-wise is that we don’t see more of Jamaican librarian Mrs. Phelps (Esther Antoine).

Matilda‘s adorably talented ensemble of schoolchildren make the musical a must-see for families and anyone who grew up reading Dahl books. The show rouses with a spirited rebellion and mischievous defiance of a miserable status quo — and a tongue-in-cheek dash of satire Dahl fans have enjoyed in classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. The verbal cleverness of Dahl is abbreviated in the theater version, of course, but the musical has more heart than the film adaptation starring Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman.

Sound technical issues marred Wednesday night’s production at the Straz’s Morsani Hall. Volume and high-end distortion made the British accents a little tougher to follow.

Future audiences should be dazzled by the special effects in Matilda the Musical. Pyrotechnic lights, explosive sounds and a beautiful silhouetted cut-out animation are some of the show’s highlights. There’s one more audience-involved complement, but I won’t give that away. The surprise is too special (and colorful).

The orchestral score is a star of the show that deserves mention. The tunes are catchy and incorporate gypsy jangle and classic melodies — one even rocks.

Sadly, the book feels somewhat slapdash. This touring production is a little too long, like so many of Broadway’s family-friendly, commercially driven productions these days. Presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Dodgers (!), it could use some serious tightening up.

Some takeaways : You can always rewrite your own story, everyone needs a little love and tenderness, and perhaps, most relevant, ignorance should never be tolerated from our authority figures.

Also, I’d be remiss not to mention Tampa’s Event Show Productions performers (inspired by Matilda’s imagination) who perform outside the lobby pre-show. They were a surprising treat.

Click here for showtimes and ticket info. 

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