Encore Michigan

‘Life Sucks’ at The Ringwald. Or does it?

Review November 12, 2017 Marin Heinritz

FERNDALE–This existential push-pull, not unlike our own self-obsessed ennui, is the driving force behind Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s 19th Century Russian play Uncle Vanya. And the many ways in which the Ringwald Theatre production brings to life this seemingly light-hearted statement/question—whose underpinnings are nothing short of pondering the meaning of life— allow us to move through the experiences on stage as if they were our own.

Because they are.

This is the brilliance of a terrific adaptation of a classic piece of literature made exquisitely relevant and meaningful in a contemporary context.

Structured in four acts with a run time of a little more than two hours including intermission, Life Sucks remains remarkably true to Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in form, character, and themes, but as a brilliant update with witty contemporary language that invites genuine discourse (both internal and external) about the inevitability of existential angst while also offering radical hilarity and cultural as well as self critique.

The actors congregate on stage and break the fourth wall from the jump, informing the audience what the play is actually about: longing and loss. Not getting what we want. How the world is royally screwed up. In the intimate space of The Ringwald, the actors enter and exit through the aisles, and, in a particularly poignant moment, even sit amid the audience—all the while periodically breaking the fourth wall to directly ask the audience questions. Who, among us, wishes we were sleeping with someone else, or wakes up awash in despair, or believes life sucks?

We’re so engaged with the characters, who feel so natural, so real, and who have made us ponder and laugh and have earned our trust with freely expressing their own vulnerabilities, we answer, perhaps some of us, anyway, honestly.

That verisimilitude emerges in the tremendous cast under Founding Artistic Director Joe Bailey’s thoughtful direction. Bailey himself plays a powerfully jealous Vanya with the juxtaposition of an undeniably jovial presence. He wants Ella, the gorgeous, young, and brilliant third wife (an expressive and convincing Sydney Lepora) of the painfully pretentious professor (Joel Mitchell), a narcissist and useless semiotician. Everyone, though, wants Ella, including the perpetually vodka-sodden Dr. Aster, an undeniably sexy and magnetic Bryan Lark, who’s irresistible not just to Ella, but also to angst-ridden, self-conscious, hopelessly romantic, homely Sonia, the professor’s daughter and Vanya’s niece captured movingly by Kelly Komlen. The cast of characters is rounded out by wise and irreverent crone Babs, played with depth by Jane MacFarlane, and quirky hand puppet-making and ukulele-strumming lesbian Pickles, played by a heart-tugging Dyan Bailey.

They’re infinitely lovable in their brokenness and infinite ways they create their own suffering—both in their minds and in their actions—as well as the ways they love each other and themselves through their undeniable flaws. Jennifer Maiseloff’s multi-tiered set complete with two seating areas and an upstage bar, and Brandy Joe Plambeck’s not overly complex lighting design allow the actors to move and show up seemingly organically. And because of the intimacy of the space and the inseparability of the action from the audience created in Bailey’s masterful direction, we empathize so deeply as to see ourselves reflected back to us.

And after witnessing all the drama, much of which is rather familiar, in the end we get to decide: does life suck? Or doesn’t it?

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Week of 6/18/2018

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