Saturday, October 14, 2023

Reality may, but 'Life Sucks' doesn't

Photo by Nicole Neri, 

Existence is a sad veil of tears, as we move from one moment to the next, never quite understanding what is happening to us. The brief moments of joy are overwhelmed by the sense time is slipping away and the fear that the fleeting joy may never be felt again.

Enough on Taylor Swift The Eras Tour. Let's talk about Life Sucks, the terrific adaptation of Chekov's Uncle Vanya from a pair of local stalwarts, Girl Friday and Open Eye Theatre.

Aaron Posner's version moves the action from the dying days of the Russian middle class to, well, whatever dying days we are in right now (capitalism? human life? the era of peak television?). We still get a gaggle of folks confused by love, life, and the everyday need to get out of bed.

The basics of the story are the same. A group of characters linked by family and friendship spend a couple of days together, as long-simmering feelings and feuds come to a head. It's a play short on action, but deep in emotions and insight.

We can start with Vanya, who longs for Ella. She is married to the Professor. Vanya was once his student, but now hates the man. In the middle of this is Sonia, the Professor's daughter who pines for  Dr. Aster. He, in turn, is mainly focused on working, drinking, and fretting about the state of the environment. Rounding out the cast are Babs, a family friend who has long been a fixture in the household, and Pickles (not the drummer), a somewhat eccentric soul who also lives on the estate.

What Posner does is take the pieces of Chekov's play and builds it into something quite contemporary. There aren't just asides to the audience, but full-on fourth-wall breaks. The characters may stop and ask you about your own desires, both for the characters on stage and in the life outside. At his deepest despair, Vanya turns a monologue into a stand-up routine.

For the most part, these updates only help the action. This may be a breezier take on the material, but there is still a lot heft here, as the characters dig deep into the state of their lives (notes version: they aren't too happy). Yet, this isn't a mope fest. Their harsh reality is tempered by strong friendships and an eventual desire to muddle through it all the best they can.

A strong cast aids in the journey, led by Georgia Doolittle as Ella and Elizabeth Efteland as Sonia. Both performances craft deep, multi-dimensional characters that are at the heart of the play. Sam Landman also pulls off a Vanya we are invested in, even though the character is essentially unlikeable. 

As always, Joel Sass directs the show with a mixture of invention and insight, as the staging employs every inch of Open Eye's tiny stage.

Life Sucks runs through Nov. 5 at Open Eye Theatre

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