At the Aurora Fox, Aaron Posner’s reimagined ‘Uncle Vanya’ makes for a hilariously depressing night of theater

It may seem like a nice homage to a playwright long gone that a reworked piece of his work is finding new audiences. Really, though, the benefits all accrue to the audiences who get a classic play presented in a modern and perhaps more relatable form.

And anyway, the playwright is long dead and will never feel the warmth of knowing his play has lived on.

Because life sucks, more or less.

As he did with Chekhov’s “The Seagull” (“Stupid Fucking Bird”), playwright Aaron Posner has a whack at “Uncle Vanya,” an 1898 Russian soap that puts a bunch of friends and relatives with complicated relationships in a house together for a few days to observe the degrees of fucked-upedness amongst them.

Renamed “Life Sucks” and premiered in 2015, the play stays faithful to the source material plot-wise. Posner has only to make a few tweaks to make the play resonate more for a contemporary audience. The characters say “fuck” a lot, for example. The doctor’s diatribe about the health of the forest is recast as a lament about climate change and other contemporaneous environmental horrors. There’s a very porous fourth wall, inspiring some back-and-forth with the audience that’s a lot of fun. At one point, Ella (Faith Angelise Goins-Simmons) matter-of-factly asks for a show of hands for anyone in the audience who might be interested in having sex with her.

This is an all-star cast of Colorado actors, tightly directed by Helen R. Murray, the Fox’s executive producer. From the get-go, “Life Sucks” establishes itself as a conversation, not just between the characters but with the audience. Even before curtain, Missy Moore as Pickles strolls onto the stage with a tiny guitar and greets people as they walk in. At one point, Vanya himself (a delightfully whacked-out and ill-dressed Jordan Leigh) practically sits in the laps of the people in the front row, laying out his multitudinous laments so convincingly that you kind of want to buy the guy a beer (although he’s already drinking too much).

As it was in “Uncle Vanya,” the plot in “Life Sucks” focuses around the arrival of a fantastically pompous and aging professor (played with over-the-top didacticism by the great Mark Rubald) and his beautiful younger wife (Simmons). The house is some sort of family possession, although it’s run by Vanya and his niece Sonia (Susanna McLeod) and frequented by a neighbor, Dr. Aster (Andrew Uhlenhopp) and also occupied by rando-relative Babs (Billie McBride). When The Professor reveals his plan to sell the place to tidy up some of his own financial affairs, all hell breaks loose and the hatred long simmering between Vanya and him bursts wide open.

But a lot more happens before that, most notably the lovely Ella being perpetually wooed by Vanya and Dr. Aster — and even a little bit by Pickles. It seems clear to all that she erred by marrying the elderly Professor, making Vanya and Aster think she’s ripe for an affair. Meanwhile, Sonia has been carrying a torch for Aster for some time and yearns to make him aware of her affection.

“Life Sucks” packs in a lot of information about each character in its four short acts. There’s all that soap opera-like romance going on, but the core of the story is focused around self-worth and identity. There’s no scene that shows this more strongly than the one in which Ella challenges Vanya to explain to her just what’s so great about him. After all, she tells him, you’ve been lamenting the fact that I don’t really know the real you for the better part of a decade. So let’s hear it: What’s the real you?

Vanya’s got nothing, and as that realization sinks in, Leigh does a masterful job making the character shrink and crumple before our eyes. A reasonable question from Ella comes to be a dagger to the heart of a man whose sole opinion of life so far is that he fucked it all up at every turn, missing the boat of opportunity each and every time it took on passengers.

What a cast!

This production of “Life Sucks” has a ridiculous amount of great performances. As Ella, Simmons pivots between being somewhat intrigued by the attention she gets from men to wishing they’d all just go away. Switching gears to address the audience at times, she’s the show’s ombudsman, essentially asking “Do you see all this shit I have to deal with?” Simmons skillfully balances Ella’s wiser side with her own urges, laying it out for all to see.

As Pickles, a character with a few screws loose, Moore resists the easy path of playing her as a  mere simpleton and presents a more layered performance that keeps everyone guessing (and laughing). As Babs, McBride has a lot of comedic lines as the world-weary lush bemused by the whole thing. And McLeod does a nice job morphing Sonia from the sweet and caring host to a much more complex character with a whole lot of unmet desire built up inside.

This play also has quite a bit of physicality, and one of my favorites to watch was Uhlenhopp. He plays Dr. Aster like a loose garden hose, at times wiggling and gyrating so wildly that it’s a wonder he’s able to keep his tan slacks on. (Although they do come off at one point to allow Sonia to mend a rip.)

“Life Sucks” asks a lot of tough questions, but it manages in some ways to answer them. They may not be the answers the characters (or any of us) want to hear, but they seem true, if a little depressing. For a night at the theater, though, Posner’s take on a Chekhov classic hits the mark and accomplishes a nice theatrical goal: giving new audiences a fresh shot at a piece of theater that’s stood the test of time.

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