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The Audience Is the Thing in Life Sucks at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham

Vanya (Thaddaeus Allen Edwards) causes concern among his friends (Rhetta Greene, Faye Goodwin, Lakeisha Coffey, and Jock Brocki) in Manbites Dog's production of <em>Life Sucks</em> (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Vanya (Thaddaeus Allen Edwards) causes concern among his friends (Rhetta Greene, Faye Goodwin, Lakeisha Coffey, and Jock Brocki) in Manbites Dog’s production of Life Sucks (photo by Alan Dehmer)

As part of its 31st and — sadly — final season, Durham, NC’s Manbites Dog Theater has selected a play by inventive American playwright Aaron Posner. Very loosely adapted from Russian dramatist Anton Chekov’s 1898 masterpiece Uncle Vanya, Life Sucks is a tragicomic view of an extended family and its search for meaning amidst a storm of ennui.

Despite its nihilistic title, Life Sucks does not posit that life is meaningless. Rather, it presents the absurdist perspective that life might have meaning, and we can search for it; but we probably will not find it.

But over the play’s four acts, Aaron Posner’s characters try and try again to define it. More than that, they enlist the audience as co-explorers in the search for meaning. Does life merely “suck” or are there shades of grey? It depends on which character you ask.

Though the familial bloodline is not well-explained, Posner makes the shape of this “family” tree quite obvious. The characters, based on Chekhov’s Serebryakov family, include the perpetually self-tormenting Vanya (a dynamic Thaddaeus Allen Edwards), the good-hearted but insecure Sonia (an endearing Faye Goodwin), and the unsophisticated but sweet Pickles (an amusing Lakeisha Coffey). This youthful trio receive both solace and ignominy from bottle-lifting matriarch Babs (a penetrating Rhetta Greene) and advice from popular neighbor Dr. Aster (Jock Brocki).

Into this relatively quiet universe crash the disagreeable, conceited Professor (an authoritative Michael Foley) and his much younger bride, the forthright Ella (a sincere Jessica Flemming). The entire ensemble is in-sync and on-target. There is, however, an eighth character: you.

Effective art encourages you to question your assumptions about the world. Of course, you can choose to sit back and ignore those probes. But this play — if you are to survive its twists and turns — demands attention.

Echoing the meta-fictional presentation of Bertolt Brecht, Aaron Posner’s characters often address the audience directly — interrupting the action with commentary, explanations, and criticism.

Life Sucks</em> stars Rhetta Greene and Michael Foley as Babs and the Professor (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Life Sucks stars Rhetta Greene and Michael Foley as Babs and the Professor (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Posner’s characters come right out and ask these existential questions to you directly. Some questions, such as Sonia’s “Do you guys know who these characters are?” appear rhetorical at first. But she pushes through the awkward silence and encourages you to answer aloud.

You may admit that you have no earthly idea what Uncle Vanya is about. You may state that you are an expert. If the group’s answers are mixed, Sonia introduces the characters in turn and clarifies relationships.

A character may forget a small factoid about fruit during a monologue. So, she stops and asks the audience. After a few such interruptions, you feel free to respond aloud.

You may begin responding to things that you ought not.

This is fun. This is engaging. This is unique. Once your guard is down, though, Posner starts prodding you with deeper questions. “How many of you want to sleep with me?” one character asks us. The house lights raise and she waits for a response — one of the most surprising and, frankly, frightening moments I have experienced in live theater.

This is not casual viewing. Blink and you could miss something astounding. Posner, a linguistic and intellectual gymnast, taxes your ear and your mind. Prepare for semiotics, the writings of Virgil, impressionism, post-abstractionism, B’sherttheology, and fellatio to creep up in conversation.

Pickles (Lakeisha Coffey) and Sonia (Faye Goodwin) share a non-somber moment (photo by Alan Dehmer)<

Pickles (Lakeisha Coffey) and Sonia (Faye Goodwin) share a non-somber moment (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Sonya Leigh Drum’s impressionist set surveys the family’s backyard, dock, office, kitchen, and patio without barriers between — allowing director Jeff Storer to move his actors freely about the grounds mid-scene.

Derrick Ivey’s unassuming costumes are emblematic of personality and social status, while Chuck Catotti’s lighting design subtly moves us between rooms and times of day with magnificent finesse — this production’s most valuable design element.

Posner’s overly-long play, clocking in at nearly 2.5 hours, Life Sucks. nearly gets away from him at times — momentarily losing his plot amid a yard of metafictional weeds. But Storer keeps us on track with concise, nuanced direction and establishment of the play’s “rules” from lights-up — compensating for Posner’s minor miscalculations.

Manbites Dog Theater’s captivating production of Aaron Posner’s exciting play is one of the most impressive in the Triangle this year. It certainly bears viewing — perhaps, twice.

Aaron Posner's <em>Life Sucks</em> at Manbites Dog Theater stars Thaddaeus Allen Edwards as Vanya, shown here trying to reveal his inner self to a skeptical Ella (Jessica Flemming) (photo by Alan Dehmer)

Aaron Posner’s Life Sucks at Manbites Dog Theater stars Thaddaeus Allen Edwards as Vanya, shown here trying to reveal his inner self to a skeptical Ella (Jessica Flemming) (photo by Alan Dehmer)

SECOND OPINION: Nov. 3rd Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 4.5 of 5 stars): https://www.indyweek.com/arts/archives/2017/11/03/theater-review-dont-let-the-period-fool-you-chekhov-update-life-sucks-is-relentlessly-interrogative and Nov. 1st mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/life-sucks/Event?oid=8868875; Oct. 31st Durham, NC Five Points Star review by Kate Dobbs Ariail: https://thefivepointsstar.com/2017/10/31/life-sucks-aaron-posners-touchingly-revised-chekhov-at-manbites-dog-theater/; and Sept. 29th Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview by Roy C. Dicks http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article176145851.html.

Manbites Dog Theater presents LIFE SUCKS, sort of adapted from Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya by Aaron Posner, at 8:15 p.m. Nov. 3 and 4, 2 p.m. Nov. 5, and 8:15 p.m. Nov. 8-11 at 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina 27701.

TICKETS: $12 weeknights and $20 Friday-Sunday, except $6 weeknights and $10 weekends for students with ID and a $2 discount for seniors 62+ and active-duty military personnel.

BOX OFFICE: 919-682-3343 or https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?actions=4&p=1.

SHOW: http://manbitesdogtheater.org/2017-18-season/life-sucks/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/177019849523179/.

2017-18 SEASON: http://manbitesdogtheater.org/2017-18-season/.

PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/, https://www.facebook.com/manbitestheater, and https://twitter.com/ManbitesTheater.

BLOG (The Upstager): http://theupstager.wordpress.com/.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://manbitesdogtheater.org/about/directions/.

OTHER LINKS:

Life Sucks (play): https://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=5603 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.).

Aaron Posner (playwright): http://www.doollee.com/PlaywrightsP/posner-aaron.html (Doollee.com: The Playwrights Database), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/42093 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3614549/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Posner (Wikipedia).

Jeff Storer (director and Manbites Dog artistic director): https://theaterstudies.duke.edu/people/jeff-m-storer (Duke Theater Studies bio).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor and director. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.

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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Lead Story, Reviews