But that's the magic of the Hippodrome. A lesser Durang work, perhaps two years or so dated, and with comedy honed to the ears of theatrical scholars rather than the 'everyman' of Barton Fink wrestling pictures, the Hippodrome gives us a world-class comedy that everyone gets. No Chekhov or theatre history required (not that there's anything wrong with that. A little Chekhov and theatre history never hurt anybody.) Can you imagine such a stacked deck in the casting? Director Lauren Caldwell switches to her actor hat and gives us a frighteningly goofy fortune teller; legendary stalwarts Nell Page and Sara Morsey as opposite-polarity sisters, and rounding out the cast are current students/alumni from the University of Florida, each of whom lights up the stage with terrific energy and talent.
Caldwell plays Cassandra, an eccentric cleaning woman who happens to have a penchant for predicting (not entirely accurately but certainly leaps and bounds beyond psychic Silvia Brown) the future. Nobody quite listens to her and the results are hilarious. SPOILER: It's all Hootie-Pie's fault. Better that you know Chekhov than Hootie-Pie, but not knowing either will not ruin the good time the HIPP throws down with this production.
It's strange to me that I can't buy Sigourney Weaver playing a famous actress. She just doesn't seem, in the numerous clips I've seen from the Broadway production of VSMS, famous. Page on the other hand plays Masha like a cross between Norma Desmond and, well, Sigourney Weaver as the evil queen in The Grimm Brothers' Snow White. Page's Masha is narcissistic, vapid, demanding, clueless, but comes with a soft center. We eventually empathize and root for her to overcome her trials and tribulations. That's the power of Nell Page's performance in this role.
Sara Morsey does quite a different remarkable thing. She has the ability to be over-the-top (in this piece, practically campy) and then at the drop of a dime, she utters a line that is so heart wrenching, you might find yourself abruptly stopping your dopey laughter with a tear or two. Her portrayal of Sonia is comic, bitter-sweet, and affecting. And she really knows how to throw a coffee mug!
And Caldwell as Cassandra; wherever over-the-top is, she's over that! And in your face in such a committed way, you'd get your teeth knocked out just wondering if she's going to punch you; or stick a needle in your Voodoo doll. Either/or. We wait for her to arrive and we're sorry when she leaves. Durang has said of his play, "My play is not a Chekhov parody...I take Chekhov scenes and characters and put them into a blender." It seems Caldwell has put her work as Cassandra in a blender. With, WTF...rasta hair? Real or a weave or wig? Clothing that could be gypsy or hippie (circa under-the-mud-at-Woodstock), her aggressive raunchy arched cat-on-two-legs physicality, I don't know what color, shape, creed, age, socio-econimic status Cassandra is...I don't know what country or planet she's from...Caldwell made a flipping FREAK! And Cassandra is well served by this portrayal, because that's exactly what she is. Caldwell's Cassandra remains as enigmatic in the mind, long after the play ends, as Cormic McCarthy's Anton Chigurh. Except she's also very funny and doesn't kill anybody.
Ryan George is built to drool over. His muscles and body structure are so tight. you could bounce a penny off his tit to neptune. He's made of black granite. Handsome, intelligent, and talented. So far, I'm talking about the actor. As Spike, the much-too younger boy-toy lover of Masha, George plays him about as dumb as a brain-stem. He knows he's hot, he goes where the fun is, or the money, and oddly enough nothing seems to bother him. He gets acting and modeling parts, enjoys the company of women of means, and seems to be getting laid regularly. He manages the kind of facial expression one might see on an adorable idiot puppy. You walk into your living room, all your shit is chewed and mangled, there's piss and puke on your important documents, in your record player, in the keys of your new laptop, and you look at that puppy, and that puppy looks at you, and you just go, "Aw, he's so sweet. It's my fault. I should have kept my stuff out of reach." It's pitch-perfect for Spike! And from what I have heard, George brings his skills to the Hippodrome from a Fort Meyers production of VSMS, also cast as Spike. George eases into this Hippodrome production (as he has in a couple of past productions) like butter. He is a UF graduate with a burgeoning career in the Big A.
Megan Wicks, (also from UF), plays Nina. She's young, attractive, and threatens to become a wedge between Masha and Spike even though she is quite an innocent operator. In a way, she's likely more interested in Masha, whom she admires as an actress and an inspiration. Megan brings to Nina a kind of relatable enthusiasm and hopefulness which runs counter to the drab resigned lives of our protagonists. She's like that sliver of light in a jail that reminds another possible world out there, if we can just manage to escape. Wicks' easy charm and soft-smoke vocal allure is virtually Lauren-Bacallsian. We, the audience, like her!
But for my experience of the evening, I must hand the prize to UF's Tom Foley in the role of Vanya for the following reasons: 1.) He does not play his gay role 'gay'. 2.) He conveys a wonderful ease, sentimentality, and casualness that makes him so gosh-darned interesting. Think a young James Stewart or Richard Burton or James Mason. Not necessarily the look of these men, mind you--not that Tom isn't easy on the eyes, he is--but the flavor of these men. We want to see what happens to men like these and how they change. And by God... 3.) When he changes, when he flips the F out on that cell phone interrupting his play and launches into the 4 page tirade that sank a thousand assholes, it is the most shining pinnacle moment in Gainesville theater I've seen in the last decade. And it is also the words of Durang--words which I've uttered in my own way secretly in my mind whenever the magic of theatre is disturbed by some ignorant disrespectful uncultured self-absorbed plebeian mutant's fucking cell-phone. I wanted to jump out of my seat and cheer during that sweaty passionate double-fisted verbal knockout. They should teach this monologue in schools, churches, rodeos, and they should have Foley deliver it just as he did in the play. The full value of the ticket price came with that singular performance of Tom Foley as Vanya. Everything else was a huge bonus. I believed every word he said. And readers, you have to see it for yourselves in the context of this show. I've never seen so many tears of truth (read: sweat) pour off a beard like I did in that Tom Foley monologue. It warmed the cockles of my heart.
As for the technical elements of the show, it becomes redundant from review to review to repeat the time-honored obvious. Real-deal experienced hardcore artists, with their hardened hands and minds, put these shows together at the Hippodrome and produce remarkably high-quality results magnified by the fact that the Hippodrome is an intimate theatre. The show happens, right up in your grill. Behind the actors are the many artists who make them, and their surroundings, look so good. Mihai Ciupe - Scenic Design / Zachary Ryan - Costume Design / Robert P. Robins - Lighting Design / Tony Berry - Properties / Sound Design by Amanda Yanes / Michael A. Eaddy - Production Manager / Amber Wilkerson - Stage Manager. Special props for Ryan whose costuming, especially for the costume party, were original yet reminiscent of their classic archetypes and absolutely eye-popping. Robins use of color in his lighting work always strikes subtle, yet profound additions to mood and atmosphere. Coupe is artful and tasteful with our setting; a warmth of wood contrasted by the coldness of stone allowing for the transformative sensabilities of the play to be supported. And note Durang's use of Beatles songs as a component of Yanes' sound design. Reminds me to say: If you don't like or love the Beatles, you can maybe still get into Heaven. But if you hate the Beatles? Like, really hate them? You're an idiot!
Hey, I told you this review would be absurd. Absurdity is the pathway to truth.
And one more point if I may. I am going to venture out on a limb here...a cherry orchard limb...and provide my armchair take on the direction. The play had seamless blocking, flowed with living pacing, and seemed almost a light touch other than a peculiar transition near the end of act one that almost posed as an intermission. I dare say director Dr. David Shelton made more of his direction by moving out of the way of the actors then he did by conducting his will. If this is the case (I'm not saying it is, but if it is), then he is even wiser and more almighty than the already considerable weight of his perspicacious legend. Someone please enlighten me if I am mistaken here, but I doubt I am.
My suggestion for playwright, Christopher Durang: Why not stage your next premiere play at the Hippodrome when the cherries in the nine-tree orchard are ripe and ready for eating, and then work your way down to broadway?
-- TOM MILLER