Dorset Players open 90th season with raucous 'Vanya'

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DORSET — The Dorset Players are like the rock of Gibraltar. Fads come and go, entire generations pass, kids we knew as babies grow up to become parents themselves, and homes are built where once only corn grew, but one thing in the Northshire never changes: The Players.

In opening their landmark 90th season, The Dorset Players have nurtured an entire community with laughs, tears, a joy for the creative, and a chance to belong to something more than just themselves.

As one of the oldest and premier community theater companies in the nation, The Players, who own Dorset Playhouse, rolled out this celebratory season with 2013 Tony award winner "Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike," by Christopher Durang, now playing through Oct. 15.

The show is directed by Player stalwart Paul Michael Brinker, and produced by relative newcomer Cheryl Gushee.

The play tells the story of three siblings in their family home in Bucks County, Penn. Vanya (Jim Young) and Sonia (Laura King) are the caretakers of the family home and - not unlike their Chekovian parallels - aren't very happy with life.

Meanwhile, Masha (Elisabeth Hazelton) has become a famous movie star and returns home with her boy toy Spike (Bobby Leonard) to attend a high brow costume party.

Masha is going as Snow White, and arrives with dwarf costumes for everyone else. Housekeeper Cassandra (Tracy Hughes) and Masha-groupie neighbor Nina (Lillian Kelly) provide additional spice to the filial mayhem.

What ensues is Durang taking us on a voyage ranging from the hilarious to the absurd while still managing poignant moments. It's a family reunion extraordinaire, bolstered by The Players' winning formula: a visually appealing set, strong direction and production support, and naturally, fine acting from top to bottom of the card. Director Brinker clearly has his actors peaking at the right time.

Hazleton's Masha does uppity perfectly, and knows just how to mix in the right amount of sarcasm to pass off the funny as well as the things that make one wince. Kelly's Nina, too, in much the same way, floats between hero worship and slight airheadedness in a manner that delights the sense and exhibits just the right amount of self-effacement.

King's Sonia, in an excellent piece of acting, is very believable as a funny woman, but also as someone who genuinely feels left behind. Fraternally speaking, Young's Vanya makes great use of the actor's convincing gentle giant persona, serving as a needed family complement to his two sisters.

Finally, Leonard's underwear-clad Spike deftly does lightweight studmuffin to the point of parody - which is exactly the point. For my money, Hughes' Cassandra steals the show in every scene she appears, her clairvoyant, seemingly crazed ramblings - never mind those brazen costumes - something of a glue which binds all the characters, and Durang's story, together in a type of Greek chorus for the inane.

The play ran for about two and half hours, which included a 20 minute intermission.

Cheryl Gushee's production support was tireless - she was ubiquitous in her lighting up, and dousing out, of fires. Drew Hill, bolstered by his crew, once again showed how The Players lead even top professional companies in this department. Rebecca Nawrath's stage management adeptly handled the plethora of moving pieces in this play.

Lights by Angie Merwin and crew, costumes by Suzi Dorgeloh and everyone, and wigs by Cherie Thompson and Mona Wightman all hit their marks.

Plays like "Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike" are meant to be fun, and this edition met that expectation and more. From chuckles to guffaws, there was something there for everyone who wanted to be amused, and who loves to laugh.

This alone, as well as the very moderate ticket prices, should be enough reason to go take in this play.

But from a bigger picture point of view: Going to a Dorset Players show, especially this season, turns into a full blown celebration of their 90th season.

It's hard to keep anything running for nine weeks, let alone nine years. But to get to a 90th birthday in community theater, everyone right down to the last stage hand will tell you that without huge amounts of generosity and largesse of both spirit and of pocketbook, it just doesn't happen.

The community of the Northshire, both the many official sponsors over the decades as well as scores of individual members and donors of The Players, have made the staging of Tony award winners like "Vanya" possible. So attendance is not a matter of appreciating the creative aesthetic; it's also a matter of critical, yet also heartwarming support.

The Dorset Players make it easy by putting on one excellent production after another, and "Vanya" is the latest in a long line.

Now you do the rest.

"Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike," will run through Oct. 15 at The Dorset Players, 173 Cheney Rd., Dorset. Info and tickets: dorsetplayers.org or 802-867-5570



Reach award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias at tchalkias@aol.com; Twitter: @TellyHalkias


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