When the Goodman Theatre extended director Steve Scott's goofy/profound production of "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" through August 2, they gave new life to playwright Christopher Durang's Tony-winning, highly hilarious tale of siblings mired in a Chekhovian crisis and their flamboyantly clairvoyant housekeeper.
As the ominously named Cassandra, Jeff Award-winning actor E. Faye Butler (pictured at top, middle) wields a mean Voodoo pin and delivers oracular warnings in between making sandwiches and glaring at spilled coffee. We caught up with Butler between shows for a conversation about playing a larger-than-life character, how the show almost turned into a musical, and why that Voodoo doll is sporting Disney-inspired couture.
Cassandra starts out speaking Greek, which I'm going to assume most audience members don't. Why do people react so strongly to her given that they can't even understand what she's talking about at first?
Butler: I think people are attracted to her because we all know someone like her. Don't we all have an aunt who we're like, ‘I love you, we're family, but what in the the hell are you wearing? And why does everything you say sound insane?'"
Cassandra is the housekeeper, but she does precious little actual housekeeping. What is her role in this family of deeply dysfunctional siblings?
EFB: She's part actress, part historian and part oracle. But mostly, she's a nurturer, kind of like their mom. She cares about them. She doesn't give out these warnings just because she hears them. She does it because she cares. She knows Vanya and Sonia can't really take care of each other. She knows they need to be connected to each other, and she's not going to stop until that happens.
Why is the voodoo doll wearing a Snow White costume?
EFB: Well, it's supposed to be Masha, the movie star sister who comes home and throws the household into turmoil. I felt we needed a very specific doll, one that looked exactly like Masha dressed up for the costume party the siblings all go to. The first doll we had, I was like, no, Cassandra would never use a generic doll. We need to have a little bird perched on the doll's finger. And she also has to have a shepherd's crook. And the cartoon Snow White's dress.
What is up with Cassandra's accent? Is it Jamaican? Creole? African? English?
EFB: Yes, all of them. The script doesn't specify an age or an ethnicity or any kind of backstory for Cassandra. I asked (playwright Christopher Durang) who she was, and he said, ‘I dunno. I just made her up.' When have a blank road map like that, you can really create something. She is what she is, not Haitian, Cajun, African or Jamaican or Creole, but also all of those. She's very eclectic.
There's something really musical to her speech, especially the Greek. It's like, you'd never stop a song in the middle and you can't stop Cassandra when she's talking. There's a definite rhythm to it. My musical experience really helped with that. All through rehearsals, we kept saying, well, if this scene or whatever doesn't work, we'll just add a song.
Beyond the sheer entertainment value, is there a message of any kind in the show? Or is it just gloriously unfettered silliness?
EFB: I hope the production reminds people that at the end of the day, family is the most important thing we all have. No matter how crazy they are. Or how much we fight. You know, especially Boomers like me, when our parents hit that age where they stop remembering so well and can get kind of irritating? You have to remember you'll miss them terribly when they're gone. So embrace them while they're here. Hang in there. Fight and hug. That's what you've got to do.
"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" continues through Sunday Aug. 2 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets are $25 - $86. For more information, go to GoodmanTheatre.org/Vanya or call 312-443-3800.
Rebecca Buller (Nina), E. Faye Butler (Cassandra) and Ross Lehman (Vanya) in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang.
Mary Beth Fisher (Masha), Janet Ulrich Brooks (Sonia), Jordan Brown (Spike) and Ross Lehman (Vanya) in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang.
Mary Beth Fisher (Masha), Ross Lehman (Vanya), Jordan Brown (Spike) and Janet Ulrich Brooks (Sonia) in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang.