Watching Russian drama can sometimes feel like lead weights dragging you to the bottom of a dark sea floor. The deeper you sink, the heavier the pressure becomes. Unless, of course, you’ve discovered 21st-century playwright Aaron Posner.
Lucky locals can drown in another Chekovian adaptation by Posner at Stage West Theatre, where the frankly titled Life Sucks runs for one more weekend. This 2017-2018 season opener is steeped in allusions to Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, but audiences needn’t be familiar with the original work to delight in the despair and fits of lustful torment in this production.
Last January, Posner’s Stupid F*cking Bird — an adaptation of The Seagull — landed at Stage West, to the delight of flocks of theatergoers. The success of that production encouraged producers to try another popular play by Posner this season. Associate Producer Garret Storms said, “Chekhov is not a classical playwright we see on professional stages much — although he certainly seems to be en vogue in DFW at the moment — so the chance to be able to put his stories on stage in a contemporary and possibly more accessible way [was] appealing. … To have a classic plucked from its time and rooted in today is enlightening and revelatory.”
At the start of Act One, the cast ambles out in unison to chit-chat with the audience, previewing all the depressing truisms about love and longing they have in store. A central character, Vanya (Mark Shum), commences a cascade of casual introductions to the other characters residing at or nearby his countryside estate, and we soon learn that every person and plot device revolves around Ella (Sherry Hopkins), third wife of the professor (Michael Corolla), the agreed-upon “pedantic prick.” We meet Vanya’s lifelong friend Dr. Aster (Jakie Cabe), who parallels the former’s flaming hot feelings for Ella, and Sonia (Kally Duncan), the sweeter, younger narrator fawning over Aster between soul-searching sessions with Aunt Babs (Cindee Mayfield) and Pickles (Sherry Jo Ward).
Much like Stupid F*cking Bird, every actor in Life Sucks takes a turn carrying the existential weight of this performance. When dialogue turns dismal — as is often the case — Ward pops in for a moment of cringe comedy so rarely seen on local stages. Hopkins’ character is well-positioned to deliver the strongest overall character development, but instead of simply resting on good writing, she found her own way to add voluptuous depth to her lines and her blocking. Likewise, Duncan’s role makes for a noteworthy character arc as she progresses from naive daughter to amorous acquaintance in a telenovela-like love triangle of surprise and deceit. The greatest overall consistency in character came from Ward, though, seconded only by Corolla, both of whom flaunted the faultless pacing we’ve come to expect from Director Emily Scott Banks. Perhaps the greatest testament to Banks’ ability is seen in the raucous tête-à-tête between Shum and Cabe, which was rife with advanced physical blocking techniques and comedic timing.
The sound design could have used some fortissimo but was overshadowed by an elaborate set design. Looking on stage, the eyes may get lost in a labyrinth of the fading reclaimed wood that lines a veranda at stage right, continuing into a staircase stretching over a beached canoe at center stage and emptying out to an eclectically outfitted in-law suite at stage left. Bursts of color come in select spots where yarnbombings occurred or where potted plants were placed. A boardwalk spans downstage while sand and turf cover the rest of the flooring. Ambient lighting from paper lanterns and industrial light bulbs adds warmth during lighter scenes, and blue lights barrel down on actors during more sobering scenes. Upstage, a glowing backdrop simulated the evening sky at various stages of the day. Costuming by Aaron Patrick DeClerk was apropos to the personality of each character, accentuating curves and frumping up homelier figures with contemporary looks.
Owing to the continued quality of production and direction at Stage West, Life Sucks is a postmodern aperitif to a larger, more storied piece of modernist drama. Expect a few surprises, a near-death experience, and more levity than tragedy — thanks in part to vodka.
Thru Sun at Stage West Theatre, 821 W Vickery Blvd, FW. $31-35. 817-784-9378.