Chicago Theatre Review
What Makes Us Tick
Life Sucks – Lookingglass Theatre
If everything in our lives doesn’t go just as we expect or want it, the common cry is that Life Sucks. But does it really? Don’t we enjoy enough good times, great days, wonderful people and rewarding moments to make it all worthwhile? Life has its ups and downs, most certainly, but focusing on the unpleasant occasions and worst examples of humanity isn’t very progressive. It’s also not very much fun.
The works of Anton Chekov, written for and produced by the Moscow Art Theatre, under the guidance of famed director Konstantin Stanislavski, weren’t focused on action. The playwright always recognized that people are inherently funny. His comedies, while not filled with one-liners and sight gags, were referred to as Theatre of Mood, always exploring the humor of life, submerged deep inside of the text. In “Uncle Vanya,” which premiered in 1899, he explores the theme of individuals who feel they’re living a wasted life. Each of his nine characters are unhappy in his own way, and a mood of melancholy pervades the entire piece.
Playwright Aaron Posner’s latest contemporary Chekov adaptation, highly acclaimed for his recent reworking of “The Seagull,” retitled “Stupid F*#king Bird,” reduces the cast from nine to seven. Some of the characters’ names have been simplified; Serebryakov becomes simply The Professor, and his beautiful, young second wife Yelena is renamed Ella. Dr. Astrov becomes Dr. Aster and the pockmarked Telegin, nicknamed Waffles in the original script, becomes a lesbian with the pet name Pickles. The maternal character, an artist and mature woman who’s concerned about ecological issues, is named Babs. Uncle Vanya and his niece Sonia, however, keep the same monikers.
The story takes place at the Professor’s rural country home, which he and his second wife are currently visiting. Vanya and Sonia, the Professor’s daughter by his first marriage, live on and manage the lakeside estate. Vanya’s lifelong friend, Dr. Aster, shares his (and everyone’s) lust for the beautiful, gentle Ella, while finding the Professor pompous and boring. Sonia, who thinks she’s too plain to ever find romance with anyone, is secretly infatuated with Dr. Aster. Pickles, who lost her first love long ago, is wallowing through her ennui by immersing herself in yarn crafts. Babs, who’s clearly the most positive member of this extended family, simply loves life. And while not bubbling over with unbridled joy, she seems to be the playwright’s spokesperson with her affirmative outlook.
Posner’s wonderful script, beautifully directed by Aaron White, often breaks the fourth wall. In fact, the actors open and close the play speaking directly to the audience. The characters talk to individual theatergoers, soliciting advice or evoking honest responses. This conceit breaks down all highbrow barriers and draws the audience directly into the play. Posner forces his assemblage not to merely be passive viewers, but active participants. White has kept his talented cast loose and adaptable when dealing with their audience, creating a feeling of spontaneity and improvisation.
Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes are homey, provincial and appropriately character-driven, while Brian Bembridge has designed a breathtaking stage environment that transforms the Water Tower venue into a Northwoods locale. The set is dominated by a quaint, two-story cottage, a weathered rowboat docked nearby and a vast skyline highlighted by a forest of stately birches. He’s washed the comedy with both the warmth of the afternoon sun and the failing illumination of twilight. Sound designers Andre Pluess and Chris LaPorte complete the picture with their special aural design.
White has a dream cast with whom to work his magic. Led by the elfin Eddie Jemison, a star of so many popular movies, and certainly no stranger to the Chicago stage, his Vanya is the character around whom much of the play revolves. Jemison is sweet, very likable and as comfortable interacting directly with audience members as he is with his fellow actors. That twinkle in his eye and that sly, ever-present smile that lives on Mr. Jemison’s face, belies his moaning and complaining that his life sucks. The actor provokes reflection, understanding and joy in this stellar performance.
He’s matched by each of his talented cast mates. Lovely, Chaon Cross, who recently dazzled audiences in the Court Theatre’s “One Man Two Guvnors,” weaves another sublime spell as Ella, the beautiful young wife, who’s easily captivated the hearts of everyone around her. The always delightful Barbara E. Robertson sparkles as Babs, the play’s practical, yet openminded matriarch figure. Handsome Philip R. Smith, sure and commanding in any production, as he was in the recent “Treasure Island,” is Dr. Aster, Vanya’s best friend and rival for the Ella’s attentions. Jim Ortlieb is properly arrogant and erudite as the Professor. Lovely Danielle Zuckerman makes her welcome Lookingglass debut as the plain and lovelorn Sonia, while Penelope Walker is infectiously delectable as Pickles.
Aaron Posner’s latest adaptation of another of Chekov’s works feels fresh and new, although its characters and story reach back to the late nineteenth century. It’s a far more streamlined play and it speaks eloquently to modern audiences with wit, humor and honesty. This is a magical opening production for this company’s 29th season, which, if it’s any indication, promises to be another thoroughly entertaining and enlightening year.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented by Lookingglass Theatre
Tickets are available by calling
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