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High praise for Black Box Ensemble

Elizabeth Thomakos, left, Michelle Hartz and Bart Herman are pictured in a scene from the Tony Award-winning comedy, "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," by Christopher Durang.

Allison Morris

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" had a three-night run at the Tuscarawas County Center for the Arts in New Philadelphia over the first weekend in November, presented by the Black Box Theatre Ensemble.
The group offers productions not often seen in our area for one reason or another, and this show was a wonderful reflection of current stage comedy and a welcome departure from the usual laundered fare one sees across our swath of the state.
This show was edgy, thoughtful and at times profane. Audiences for Black Box productions are limited due to space, and the nearly full crowd with whom I shared the evening on Friday was never silent, feeling free to laugh all the way down to their bellies and sigh, gasp and even burst into applause throughout.
The message, to me, was that the area is more than ready for more updated fare in the arts. There is no need in the 21st century to cut every swear and double entendre.
The cast was made up of a group of almost entirely well-seasoned area actors, and it was a great pleasure to watch a group of people who knew exactly how to handle the material.
They pulled off every well-timed joke and sight gag so flawlessly that I found myself grinning at one point, waiting for a gag to play out, wondering to myself if they would get it right and then watching them nail it.
Comedy isn’t at all easy. A tenth of a beat early or late, and the laugh is lost. I felt like I was watching a well-conducted symphony. They knew what they were doing. They were all very giving in setting each other up. They plundered every moment for all it was worth, and the audience benefited from their hard work.
Don Irven, it must be said again, is a very fine director who knows how to keep a show tightly moving. There was little wasted action, and all the movement made sense or solved a crunch-for-space problem on the small stage. Irven knows how to keep a grip on a production as only a good director can among artist egos and individual visions. This cast’s apparent trust in the direction was key to the show’s success.
All that direction would have been as pointless as herding cats without the talent to bring the production to life. Bart Herman brought decades of experience to the role of Vanya, and watching him play just about every moment with masterful control and timing was a flat-out delight.
Elizabeth Lehigh Thomakos played Sonia, his sister. She kept up with Herman and gave it right back at every step. The entire cast had marvelous chemistry on stage and beautiful timing.
As the story goes, Vanya and Sonia have taken care of their aging parents until the end and now live in the family home in Pennsylvania. Having devoted their adult life to the extended care of their mother and father, they have developed no lives of their own and now are settled into a monotonous, bickering existence. Sonia bemoans their lives: “Nothing ever changes.”
Enter Masha (Kami Stanley), their sister, a famous actress with money to burn who keeps the house going and pays all her siblings’ bills. She brings Spike (Mikey Rogers), a handsome plaything half her age.
Spike’s job is to be discordantly young and preen about in his underwear, keeping gay Vanya aghast much of the time. Stanley gave us a high-energy, always-in-motion Masha, and when she and Spike appeared, the entire dynamic of the production shifted palpably. Now all four interacted with superb chemistry.
Michelle Hartz, as the psychic housekeeper Cassandra, played up her creepy warnings of impending doom and voodoo hijinks with spectacular, appropriate upstaging and owned the space every time she appeared.
Kate Johnson brought just the right note as the charming, starry-eyed neighbor. All of them played off each other wonderfully.
The show is loosely based in the work of Anton Chekov, which means someone is threatened with losing the family home. The script, by playwright Christopher Durang, wove Chekovian and comedic elements together seamlessly.
Well done Black Box Ensemble. Keep ‘em coming.

Published: November 10, 2017
New Article ID: 2017171109949