Saturday, October 28, 2023

"Life Sucks" by Girl Friday Productions and Open Eye Theatre

Girl Friday Productions holds a unique niche in #TCTheater. Specializing in large-cast classics, they typically do just one production every other year. They skipped their 2021 production due to the pandemic (although they did create a really lovely virtual winter cabaret show - still available to watch here), and now they're finally back - four years after their last production. They're also stepping out of this niche, co-producing a play with Open Eye Theatre that was written in this millennium with just a seven-person cast. But Life Sucks by Aaron Posner is loosely based on Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, so I guess it counts in the classics department. And a seven-person cast is quite large for Open Eye's stage, which is the smallest and sweetest stage in town, so the cast to square footage ratio is still quite high. Maybe it's not such a leap for them after all, and it's consistent with their past work in that it's perfectly cast, thoughtfully constructed, and epic in themes if not in size. They've just extended their run through November 12, and you would be wise not to miss this funny and profound rare offering from Girl Friday and Open Eye (click here for info and tickets).

It's been a while since I've seen Uncle Vanya, so I refreshed my memory before seeing the show. But you don't need to, the relationships of these characters is fully explained and the story easy to follow. The playwright has written the play in a unique style that alternates between direct audience addresses and scenes telling the story, with lots of fourth wall breaking and even a bit of audience participation, in the form of questions asked and responses welcomed. 

this wonderful cast (photo by Nicole Neri)
In this version of the story, seemingly set in modern-ish times, maybe in America, Sonia (an endearing Elizabeth Efteland) is still the lonely and "plain" young woman whose mother died when she was young, who now lives on the family country estate with her mother's brother - her Uncle Vanya (Sam Landman, who gets to do some funny/tragic standup in the way only he can). In this version she was also raised by her mom's best friend Babs (Girl Friday's Artistic Director Kirby Bennett), and there's an eccentric resident called Pickles (Waffles in the original, played by the ever delightful Taj Ruler, who should live in a tiny hole under every stage to pop out and make everything better), as well as Vanya's best friend Dr. Aster (the charming Jonathan Feld), whom Sonia may be in love with. Into this oddball little family come Sonia's father, known as The Professor (a wonderfully pompous and erudite Jim Ramlet), visiting from the city but actually the owner of the estate, and his young wife Ella (an alluring Georgia Doolittle), whom everyone is in love with. As we're told at the beginning, this play is about love, longing, loss, and yes, how much life sucks. And also how much it doesn't.

In this partnership between the two theater companies, Open Eye's Artistic Director Joel Sass directs the piece and designed the set (natch). It's just so beautifully done, both the direction and the design, achieving that tricky balance in tone between humor, silliness, and play, and the melancholy and wistfulness of the profound questions asked (and asked quite literally - what is life?!). Every performance is consistent with this tone, every actor has moments of humor and despair and everything in between. This brilliant script really couldn't be in any better hands than this cast and creative team.

photo by Nicole Neri
The tiny and sweet Open Eye stage has been opened up as much as the space allows, with a "deconstructed, impressionistic" depiction of the comfortable country home. Aging chipped whitewashed pieces from the cabinets on the wall to shelves and tables, and a charming dollhouse at the back, with mismatched chairs and an upholstered bench, everything points to the slightly faded but much loved home in which these characters live their lives. The title of the show is displayed over the stage in whimsical letters, lit in colorful bulbs at various times to bring attention to the opportune words. Claire Looker's costume design is so diverse it's almost like each character is from a different play - Babs' biker chick look, the Professor's professorial suit, Pickles' childlike overalls and polka dot shoes, Ella's casually elegant dresses - but it works, and helps us get an immediate idea who these characters are.

We're about two months into the 2023-2024 season, and Life Sucks is truly one of my favorite things I've seen so far. It's a silly, funny, entertaining story that also ponders life's big questions, written in a unique style that lets us all know that we're watching a play, but still casts a spell over us and takes us on this journey through the highs and lows of life. There are so many things that suck about life right now - wars, mass shootings, diminishing Civil Rights - but still, there's life. There are still things that don't suck, and theater that reminds us of both of those aspects of life is certainly one of them.