LIFE SUCKS at Lookingglass Theatre, Review – Life Might Suck, but This Outstanding Play Certainly Doesn’t

 

At the beginning of Lookingglass Theatre’s newest production, the Midwest Premiere of Aaron Posners amusing and engaging play, Life Sucks, a modern variation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, the seven talented performers assemble on stage together and tell us directly what we’re about to experience: “This is a play about love, longing, loss, and how messed up the world is….” using an unprintable expletive in place of the words “messed up”. Another actor adds that if exploring these themes is not your thing, “you’ve chosen your night’s entertainment poorly”. And, after offering us a chance to leave, another jokes, “You still have time to catch Mary Zimmerman’s Wonderful Town at the Goodman.”

 

Danielle Zuckerman (Sonia) and Chaon Cross (Ella)

 

The comical tone of the opening sets the tone for the rest of the production. The actors basically tell us right away and frankly that we’ll be watching a show about life’s most depressing and complex subject matters in a light-hearted, and, oddly, pleasing way. Posner takes Chekov’s cynical characters, and gives them the same moody pessimism, but with a contemporary playful touch that was outright hilarious in places. For example, one of the characters bemoans in a lengthy speech how getting old sucks, ending it with, “The key thing you have to understand is… Ah, F*** it – I’m too tired” and he walks off stage leaving the whole audience in laughter.

 

Life Sucks is performed in Four Acts – vignettes really. Each new act is a variation on the themes of, what Mr. Posner describes as, “day-to-day human love, longing, hope and heartache”. It’s basically the same story as Uncle Vanya… that is, at least as far as I can recall - read it in college, but only have the foggiest of recollections of what happened. No matter though, one needn’t have any experience with Chekov to understand this play, or to appreciate the self-aware humor. The themes alone are universal enough that they should resonate with all of us.

 

Eddie Jemison (Vanya), Barbara Robertson (Babs), Jim Ortlieb (Professor) and Chaon Cross (Ella)

 

Although the play is mostly just an examination of our four intertwined topics, there is an actual plot. Set on in and around a lakeside home (Brian Bembridge’s wooden and incredibly detailed scenic design is somehow both intimate and expansive). The house was inherited by Sonia (Danielle Zuckerman) a young woman with deep insecurities who pines to be with her neighbor, Dr. Aster (Philip R. Smith). Sonia shares the place with her uncle Vanya (Eddie Jemison), a man with many conflicted emotions. Dr. Aster, as it turns out, is Vanya’s oldest friend.

 

Living on the estate, but not in the actual house, are two frequent visitors that Sonia referrers to as “extended family”. They are the wise, well-traveled, and free spirited Babs (Barbara E. Robertson), she’s Vanya’s sister as well as the college roommate of Sonia’s deceased mother, and the quirky “maiden aunt”, Pickles (Penelope Walker), who teaches crafts and lives above the garage.

 

Visiting the family are Sonia’s father, simply named the Professor (Jim Ortlieb), a pompous man of academia (he teaches semiotics) who views himself with a warped sense of narcissism, and his new young wife (his third wife actually), Ella (Chaon Cross). Their arrival drives everything into disarray. The men lust after Ella; throwing themselves at her feet practically. Ella’s rejection combined with the broiling jealousy of the Professor leads Vanya into a depression, while Sonia’s conflicted feelings towards Ella causes her anxieties to accelerate.

 

Eddie Jemison (Vanya) and Chaon Cross (Ella)

 

Despite the complex topics and the raveled mix of characters, the play really isn’t hard to follow, but it does take about 10 minutes or so to really comprehend what’s going on. The disorientation stems from the unusual style (where characters speak to each other and then switch to random asides candidly to the audience) which is compounded with the fact that we have no idea who these characters are or why they’re there at first.

 

However, this is a self-aware play filled with self-absorbed characters that constantly smash the fourth wall to literally address us. Posner is a smart writer. He knows that we’ll be confused by the first scene, with the mass amount of characters with complex backgrounds. So to get everything on track he has Sonia, in the middle of the second scene, suddenly look out at the audience and say, “Oh. You’re probably all confused about what’s going on... Let me break it down for you.” She then goes into short details conveying to us the background of each person. It’s a very clever way of inviting us in to a Chekhovian story.

 

Eddie Jemison (Vanya), Barbara Robertson (Babs), and Philip R. Smith (Dr. Aster)

 

By talking to the audience personally the characters are able to examine their own subtextual angst and reveal hidden truths in ways they wouldn’t dare to say out loud. In a way the overall form has many similarities with musical theatre. These people are miserable on the surface, but full of rich complexities and longings underneath.

 

Thus, we are privy to some astounding, beautiful, and, often very humorous, monologues. Nearly every character is given a moment of vulnerability, an inner speech to reflect on their turmoil or lament about other regrets. They’re also given a good deal of stage time. It’s the kind of show you’d typically see showcased at a theatre conservatory.

 

Life Sucks is one of the best contemporary adaptations I’ve seen of any play. It’s authentic to Chekov’s source material and it also has a sense of originality of its own. Chekov’s work is tailored to a more highly-educated class of the theatergoing public, whereas Posner’s work is something everyone can connect with. His play tells the same story, retaining the intellectual wit, but he also expands and enhances Chekov’s piece in a universal way. Posner, I might add, is well-experienced with tackling present-day updates of Chekhovian classics. His other groundbreaking play, Stupid F–ing Bird, which has had many Chicago productions, is reworked from Chekov’s The Seagull.

 

Eddie Jemison (Vanya), Barbara Robertson (Babs), Jim Ortlieb (Professor), Danielle Zuckerman (Sonia), and Penelope Walker (Pickles)

 

The cast is all-around impeccable. All seven are perfectly cast in their respective roles (casting directors Philip R. Smith and Raymond Fox deserve much recognition for this). What was most interesting was seeing the contrasting dynamics between each character - how they communicate with each other differently, how they treat each other, not just in what’s said, but in what is not said. Andrew White is clearly an actor-driven director and it shows in the relationships on stage.

 

Eddie Jemison’s Vanya is extremely layered. Penelope Walker is both silly and real in her portrayal of Pickles. As Babs, Barbara Robertson is wise, sensitive, and unassuming in a very comforting way. Philip Smith unearths a surprising amount of humor in what could easily be Dr. Aster’s most sorrowful moments. While Jim Ortlieb, as the Professor, is able to turn a bitchy regretful lament into a comic discourse.

 

Chaon Cross has the physical appeal that makes it easy to see how Ella could cause so much unintentional conflict to the family. Cross gives a bold performance showing disgust at the men lusting after her. She even asks the audience point-blank at one point how many of them would like to sleep with her, before probing us further in one of the most entertaining audience-engaging moments of the night. As a side note: while audience interactions usually make me cringe I had no problem accepting it here including many improvised moments by the talented cast.

 

Danielle Zuckerman (Sonia) and Penelope Walker (Pickles)

 

Although everyone is doing excellent work, Danielle Zuckerman really stood out. The actress so embodies everything about the word “likability” that after watching her performance you almost wish she were your friend in real life. It’s fitting since one of Sonia’s problems is that guys want to be her friend, instead of her lover. The actress digs deep into Sonia providing her with a quirky fun eccentric side on her surface, and an extreme vulnerability of longing desires and painful urgency on the inside (Ella accurately compares her character to an avocado at one point.) But it was Zuckerman’s breathtaking handling of Sonia’s monologue that really raised the stakes in this play to a whole other level. Her monologue was an exposed cathartic release of angst. It was filled with so many complex levels that I was simply awed by it.

 

Jim Ortlieb (Professor) and Chaon Cross (Ella)


The play isn’t perfect. As mentioned earlier the first scene is bewildering and it drags. And the story gets a little too moralizing in the second act. Even the characters themselves seem exasperated by the tough-luck lessons at the end, which, to sum up goes like this, “life does suck some times, but get over it. We all got problems. Not just you.” But that’s okay. Letting go is the hardest lesson to accept. Maybe it is worth meditating on for a couple hours.

 

In fact, I couldn’t help but reflect on some friends and relatives of my own who have constantly struggled with adversity and let it get them down. How I wished they didn’t live so far away and could’ve seen this with me. 

 

Bottom Line: Life Sucks is highly recommended. One of the most highly entertaining play’s I’ve seen this year if not one of the best. The cast is excellent and the direction is flawless. The play has a lot of important topics which are delivered with poignancy and much lighthearted wit.

 

LIFE SUCKS at Lookingglass Theatre Company

Running Time: 2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission.

LocationLookingglass Theatre Company, 821 N. Michigan Ave, Chicago IL 60611 at Pearson 

The theatre is located inside Chicago’s historic Water Tower at the intersection of Michigan and Pearson. It is directly across the street on Pearson from the Water Tower shopping complex. It is a busy neighborhood so plan to arrive early as there is no late seating. 

Runs through: November 6, 2016

Curtain Times:  WEDNESDAYS – SUNDAYS at 7:30 PM, with additional matinee performances THURSDAYS, SATURDAYS and SUNDAYS at 2 PM

Performances for People with Disabilities: Touch tour/Audio described performance on Thursday October 13 at 7:30 PM. Touch Tour begins at 6:30 PM. Open captioned performance is on Thursday, October 6 at 7:30 PM

Tickets$35 - $70 and can be purchased online (see link above), by calling the Lookingglass Box Office at (312) 337-0665, or in person at the Water Tower Works Box Office located in the theatre.

Discounted Tickets: A limited number of student tickets are available the day of the show for $20 with a valid student ID. Groups of 8 or more can save up to 20%. Contact Group Sales by calling (773) 477-9257 x125.

 

Directed by Ensemble Member Andrew White, Written by Aaron Posner

Featuring: Ensemble Member Philip R. Smith (Astor) with Chaon Cross (Ella), Eddie Jemison (Vanya), Jim Ortlieb (Professor), Barbara Robertson (Babs), Penelope Walker (Pickles) and Danielle Zuckerman (Sonia)

Understudies: Rengin Altay, J. Nicole Brooks, Joe Dempsey, Samantha Kaser, Jim Krag, Sarah Razmann, and Andrew White

Photo Credits: Liz Lauren

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