Guthrie presents modern take on Chekhov in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Suzanne Warmanen (Sonia), Isabell Monk O'Connor (Cassandra), and Charles Janasz (Vanya).

Suzanne Warmanen (Sonia), Isabell Monk O'Connor (Cassandra), and Charles Janasz (Vanya).

Director Joel Sass gets a chance to helm a work by one of his favorite playwrights with the Guthrie Theater's production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Christopher Durang earned the 2013 Tony Award for best play with this Chekhovian remix, where elements of the great Russian playwright get a modern twist.

The company includes Candy Buckley, Joshua James Campbell, Ali Rose Dachis, Charles Janasz, Isabell Monk O'Connor, and Suzanne Warmanen. We asked Sass a few questions via email about working on a Durang script and the particular challenges of this material.

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City Pages: How did you get attached to this piece? Was it something that you had your eyes on for some time?

Joel Sass: I've always enjoyed Christopher Durang's plays. They are incredibly funny, with a deft combination of absurd farce, wholesome sentiment, and a wicked pop-culture wit. The plays can also be deceptively difficult to manage in terms of tone. He frequently deals with serious subjects and difficult relationships, but the treatment is never heavy. It's light, sparkling, simultaneously grounded and tossed-off.

I've never had the opportunity to direct a Durang play until now. I was visiting New York and saw the production there, and liked the play very much, but didn't know until a year later I'd have a chance to direct it, when Joe Dowling called to say he was putting it on the Guthrie season, and invited me to do it.

CP: How much of Chekhov's DNA is in the play? Do you feel a need to expand on that or limit it? Is this something that the everyday theater goer is going to be able to absorb and enjoy?

JS: There is a lot of Chekhovian DNA laced throughout the production, but prior knowledge of this is absolutely non-essential to the viewer. Durang intentionally constructed his play so it would entertain and delight all viewers, whether they are familiar with Chekhov's work or not. Durang himself describes his creative process as taking characters and themes of Chekhov and putting them in a blender. He's not doing a parody at all by mocking Chekhov's literary style and themes. It's definitely farcical with the exaggerated characters and absurd situations, but this is all in service of a sincere homage to Chekhov, who deeply impressed Durang and influenced his own development as a playwright.

CP: What were you looking for in the cast?

JS: Durang's plays need actors who can instinctively manage the delicate task of establishing a character who is simultaneously grounded in reality but also able to skate on the thin edge of hilarious farce, playing someone who is both "real" and capable of outrageously indulgent or exaggerated behavior. I am always drawn to artists with interesting voices, fun physicality, and a smart point of view, actors who are responsive to direction but also possessing a confidence in having authorship of their own performance. I want people who are instinctively attuned to the playwright's material, and who can bring something to the creative table in terms of their choices. I feel we definitely found that in our Guthrie cast.

CP: Now that you have started to perform in previews, how does the play feel? Have there been any particularly difficult parts of the process?

JS: Theater absolutely requires the presence and response of an audience in order for the actors and director to shape the final performance. This is especially true of comedy, where the laughter must be integrated into the rhythm of the dialogue. It's a duet between the actors and the audience. In every play, there is a point in the rehearsal process where what seems amusing or hilarious in week one seems dead as a doornail by week three, simply because it is all "known" to those in the room. Once we hit previews, a "virgin" audience reintroduces the crucial element of surprise back into the equation, and the storytelling comes alive once more. We're finding that our preview audiences are showing us where to hold for response, and where the storytelling can move faster because the audience is ahead of us.

CP: What do you hope everyone gets out of the experience?

JS: Theater offers many enriching benefits to performer and audience. It can dissect and examine the human condition via stirring drama and tragedy; no less important is the role of comedy in rejuvenating us through the delight of amusement and laughter. Durang has taken threads from Chekhov and woven an entirely new comic delight -- a sunny play about gloomy people -- and that's something I think audiences will appreciate when the stories in our daily news and television are currently so grim. He also spins a family tale that, while liberally soaked in laughter, has something important to say about the anxieties of middle-age, the importance of roots and family, and the virtue of remaining always remaining hopeful. In this, Durang's play ends on a note that is more positive than Chekhov.


Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike The show is in previews through Thursday, and opens Friday Through August 31 Guthrie Theater 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis $35-$70 For tickets and more information, call 612.377.2224 or visit online.