Through Nov. 11
Manbites Dog Theater, Durham
The period in the name of Manbites Dog Theater’s current show, Life Sucks., is a typographical oddity (and an annoyance for writers and editors) that turns the play’s title a declarative statement. But that’s misleading, because Aaron Posner’s self-aware, contemporary update of Anton Chekhov, who is coyly listed in the “Special Thanks” section of the playbill, is relentlessly interrogative.
Five of the seven characters in this lively, freewheeling adaptation of Uncle Vanya seem to be constantly, anxiously questioning one another and themselves, usually over whether their own lives suck as hard as they believe they do. On top of that, they also regularly ask the audience for judgment calls: What does a word mean, is a certain character sexually desirable, is X a fruit or a vegetable?
As the whole affair teeters on the brink of being a full-fledged inquest on the phenomenology of suckage, it comes as a restful, if momentary, relief when Babs, the Marina character in the original (a soulful, no-nonsense Rhetta Greene), interrupts the incessant queries with a childhood remembrance that asks only that we listen. Perhaps that’s why she’s my favorite character here—an aging artist and sympathetic late-night bartender who knows quite well what she knows, in stark contrast to the others here, who don’t.
The characters and structure are familiar despite the changes in the original text. Love, longing, and loss are still on the menu, as the troupe states in an opening disclaimer. But Posner gives his characters gifts that Chekhov’s could only dream of. Ella (Jessica Flemming), the wife of the Professor (Michael Foley), is so much more dimensional and sympathetic in this feminist reading, and though Dr. Aster (Jock Brocki, in one of his strongest showings) and Vanya (a strong Thaddaeus Edwards) both pine for her at first, ultimately the men come away with a much clearer vision of themselves and their lives’ actual possibilities. They and others, including the hapless, hormonal Sonia (Faye Goodwin), finally learn how to escape their self-imposed captivity.
Recent changes in our culture make the title’s central premise a lot less academic than it was in the past. The human destruction of our ecosystem that Chekhov’s original doctor worried about is currently in full force. It also bears clarifying that Rex Tillerson, name-checked in this adaptation, was merely Exxon’s CEO at the time of the show’s premiere in 2015; now, he’s secretary of state. For many, if not most, Americans, life does suck more today than it did two years ago. At the advent of this timely play, the end is not in sight.