LIFE SUCKS. Aaron Posner’s touchingly revised Chekhov at Manbites Dog Theater

5 - Vanya and others

Thaddaeus Edwards as Uncle Vanya, Rhetta Greene as Babs, and Jock Brocki as Dr. Aster, with Faye Goodwin as Sonia and Lakeisha Coffey as Pickles, in Manbites Dog’s new production of Aaron Posner’s LIFE SUCKS., through Nov. 11, 2017. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

Although the first show of its Other Voices series took place last month, Manbites Dog Theater’s own final season has just begun, appropriately, with a contemporary re-make of Anton Chekhov’s great play, Uncle Vanya–Aaron Posner’s Life Sucks. (the period is part of the title). Does it or doesn’t it? Maybe only sometimes.

For instance, it totally sucks that this is the next-to-last production Jeff Storer will direct at the theater he and his partner Ed Hunt co-founded, and damnitall, it sucks to mourn this ending of theater in Durham as we have known if for 30 years before it even occurs. But it is a fine thing to go down laughing–which one does frequently during this deft and touching exploration of the longings and frustrations of a group of people who know each other well, if not as well as they thought they did.

As you may remember, the action in Uncle Vanya is precipitated by the arrival in the country of the professor, the titular owner of an estate he’s never worked, with his young second wife, and the intention of selling up to finance his city life. Such a sale would render the professor’s daughter and her uncle homeless. Posner retains this basic plot driver, and Storer renders it even more potent than usual due to the parallel with his theatrical home, which its board has decided will soon be sold, albeit for a better purpose—and this intention will not be reversed in the fourth act.

So we are sad; we are in a time of retrospection and elegy—but Posner’s having none of that. He’s mashed up Uncle Vanya with Billy Wilder’s hilarious 1959 film Some Like It Hot and if that doesn’t make you laugh, check your pulse. Storer’s staging is highly reminiscent of Wilder’s, with everyone chasing the object of his or her desire around in circles.

4 - Vanya and Ella

Ella (Jessica Flemming) listening to Vanya (Thaddaeus Allen Edwards) as he tries to explain himself–his real self–in hopes of winning her away from the Professor. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

The Marilyn Monroe role is played here by Jessica Flemming, as Ella, and it requires no effort to understand why she’s being pursued by all and sundry: She’s a dish. But she’s sticking with her man who wears glasses, even though he now provokes more pity and irritation than love in her. Flemming gives her character’s forthright rejection of various others’ impassioned propositions a winsome quality that keeps reminding the viewer that she’s much more than a pretty face.

Ella’s interactions with her husband may be lackluster, but the Professor, beautifully played by Michael Foley, still generates sparkle with the world-wise Babs. This is Rhetta Greene’s first Manbites appearance (in the midst of death we are in life) and I expect she will have quite a fan club by the end of the run. After a career on the New York stage, and in TV and film, and a nice long rest, she has begun to appear locally. If Jeff Storer ever allowed anyone to steal his shows, she would have done it. Her portrayal of Babs is fantastic–wry, unhurried, amused, warm–and she generates heat and light even in the cooly self-centered Professor.

Michael Foley–long a mainstay of the company, now in his final role for Manbites Dog–gives one of his finest performances. His speech on age and infirmity was note-perfect on preview night, and had me sobbing into my sleeve. He plays the Professor very low key, so the content of his speeches ambushes you, and ultimately he makes the Professor a more sympathetic character than you generally find in Uncle Vanya.

7 - Dr Aster and Vanya

The doctor (Jock Brocki) trying to get Vanya (Thaddaeus Allen Edwards) to buck up. Scenic design by Sonya Leigh Drum. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

The same could be said for this production’s Vanya–Thaddaeus Allen Edwards. Vanya’s still exasperating, but somehow more lovable. Sonya Leigh Drum’s wonderful set seems designed especially for Vanya’s moment of crisis, which takes place in a truncated row boat without oars. As Vanya contemplates suicide, all the characters he has played at Manbites seem to glide across the imaginary water, across the viewers’ minds’ eyes, as if it were our own lives possibly coming to an end. Vanya is of course rescued by his friend, Dr. Aster, played here by Jock Brocki with perhaps just a little much emphasis on the doctor’s stultifying ennui.

Certainly Sonia, who’s crazy in love with him, can’t pierce the doctor’s fog. Faye Goodwin handles Sonia beautifully, and is especially adept at the self-aware switches between the play’s interior and its turning outward to inform or harangue the audience directly. The scenes between her Sonia and the doctor give the production some of its broadest humor, and her blunt self-evaluations give it a painful poignancy. In Posner’s script, Chekhov’s character Waffles has been replaced by a female character, Pickles, and Goodwin makes Sonia’s introduction of Pickles very sweet.

1 - Pickles and Sonia

Sonia (Faye Goodwin), right, introducing Pickles (Lakeisha Coffey) to the audience of Life Sucks. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

 

In Pickles we see that Lakeisha Coffey has found her light as a stage actor. Partly this is due to the actual light provided by Chuck Catotti’s excellent design, but mainly is it because Coffey has matured (before our very eyes on the Manbites stage) into an actor who can go far beyond her known world, and take us with her. She is captivating here, and in command of a character very different from any we’ve seen her play. Although this is a small role, she leaves a deep memory imprint with it. The scene with the puppets (designed by Angela Spivey), with which Pickles tries to seduce the universally popular Ella, is unforgettable, and will go right up there with Coffey’s characterization of Ann Atwater (Best of Enemies) in her roll call of achievments.

The production’s design team also includes two other long-time Manbites contributors: Derrick Ivey, who did the costuming; and Shelby Hahn, who has provided a rather surprising, if unobtrusive, aural analogue to the action. All the design components mesh particularly well in this show, supporting the script, the acting and the wise and gentle direction. Contrary to what the title might lead you to think, this play and its production here make you feel better about almost everything. Rhetta Greene’s Babs has a lovely speech about saying her gratitudes every day, and Thaddaeus Edwards’ Vanya declares, with angst and joy, that all he wants is to love and be loved (cue Marilyn Monroe singing “I Just Want to Loved By You”). Taken together, these two speeches strike me as reflecting director Storer’s own values: this show seems like a statement of grace in an ungraceful world.

Given the size of the crowd at preview, and on opening night, advance ticket purchase is advisable.

2 - Babs and Professor

Rhetta Greene’s captivating Babs bringing out the sweetness in the pompous Professor (Michael Foley) in Aaron Posner’s LIFE SUCKS. The Manbites Dog Theater production, directed by Jeff Storer, runs through Nov. 11, 2017. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

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THE FAIRYTALE LIVES OF RUSSIAN GIRLS, onstage at Manbites Dog through May 9

Annie (Faye Goodwin) is fed by her

Annie (Faye Goodwin) is fed by her “not quite Auntie Yaroslava” AKA Baba Yaga, who eats young girls (Carly Prentis Jones) in Manbites Dog’s striking production of THE FAIRYTALE LIVES OF RUSSIAN GIRLS. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

Floral matryoshka set, smallest doll nested.  Photo: BrokenSphere via Wikimedia Commons.

Floral matryoshka set, smallest doll nested.
Photo: BrokenSphere via Wikimedia Commons.

Some days, the bear eats you; some days you eat the bear.  Other times, that canny old witch Baba Yaga fattens you up before she roasts your bones for supper–The End. But in Meg Miroshnik’s contemporary Moscow, the women aren’t playing by the old rules any more, even though their lives are still as onionized as matryoshka dolls, each iteration of self constrained by a skin of old ways imposed by an ancient patriarchal society. “Action must be taken!” they cry to each other as they lurch from one perilous situation to the next doing the best they can to stay alive, protect their friends, and be happy. Between the classic beginning to a Russian fairy tale, “they lived, they were,” and “The End” (no happily ever after), these women take bold and surprising actions with stunning sang-froid, often using language that could blister paint. In the hands of director Jules Odendahl-James, the play is brazen, feminist, provocative, sad, bitingly humorous–yet another Manbites Dog production not to be missed.

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) is welcomed to Russia by a customs officer (Laurel Ullman) in Manbites Dog's production of THE FAIRYTALE LIVES OF RUSSIAN GIRLS. Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) is welcomed to Russia by a customs officer (Laurel Ullman) in THE FAIRYTALE LIVES OF RUSSIAN GIRLS. Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

When I took Russian history in college, no women were mentioned, other than Catherine the Great and assorted czarinas. One knew of some cultural figures–Ahkmatova, Pavlova, Plisetskaya–and of course, Russian women in fiction; and that women in the USSR were being educated and trained for “male” jobs like astrophysics and utilizing heavy equipment. But even after the revolutions that created the communist state, women as political leaders were conspicuously absent. The Russian Bear was always male.

It would be difficult for the young women on stage in Miroshnik’s fascinating one-act, The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, to comprehend how large the USSR loomed for people of my age group. The insane geo-politics of the Cold War torqued everyone. Kruschev! The Iron Curtain! Duck and cover! This way to the bomb shelter! The KGB! The Gulags! The Evil Empire! On and on. By the mid-1980s, even the most ardent believers in the pure possibilities of communism had been disabused to the idea that that purity could be found in the USSR.

Raisa Gorbachova, R, with Pamela Harriman, in Washington, DC, during USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's summit meeting with US President Ronald Reagan, that led to the great thawing of the Cold War.  December, 10, 1987. Photo by: Chris Wilkins, AFP, 51500037.

Raisa Gorbachova, R, with Pamela Harriman, in Washington, DC, during USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s summit meeting with US President Ronald Reagan, that led to the great thawing of the Cold War. December, 10, 1987. Photo by: Chris Wilkins, AFP, 51500037.

So, great was the skepticism and later the celebration when Mikhail Gorbachev began to reach out for a detente with the West. Glasnost! Perestroika! With him, shockingly, was his wife, Raisa Gorbachova. No one had ever seen the Communist leaders’ wives. Scholar, philosopher, fashionista, she blazed across the Western consciousness, a completely new image of the contemporary Russian woman. The Gorbachevs soon fell from grace, but still, the image of Raisa remained overlaid on the old images of tired workers, queuing mothers, scarved peasants.

Gorbachova’s fairytale took a dark path after her husband’s ouster and the collapse of the USSR, and ended with a fast-moving leukemia in 1999. But before then, she had, as The Guardian put it, “destroyed the image of Soviet women as potato-shaped battleaxes in headscarves,” which makes her the foremother of Meg Miroshnik’s women of the Pussy Riot era.

As we all know, communism in the former USSR was replaced by the sickest form of capitalism, all repressive systems remaining firmly in place. Very few women’s voices have been heard since that transition.

Miroshnik, in an artistic way, provides a keyhole view into the strange difficult lives of young women in the new chaos of a country where change has been great, though bedrock change has not yet occurred. But, her work suggests, today’s young women are swinging on the pendulum of history in four-inch heels, battle-axes at the ready, prepared to eviscerate the bad old bear.

Annie get your axe--there's more than one way to skin a bear. Faye Goodwin as American Annie. Rehearsal photo by Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie get your axe–there’s more than one way to skin a bear. Faye Goodwin as American Annie. Rehearsal photo by Jules Odendahl-James.

The actors of the Manbites Dog production are uniformly powerful, and Odendahl-James made casting decisions that allow amazing visuals–three are tall, and three range from tiny to short–within the visual richness of Sonya Drum’s set design. The costuming, also by Drum with help from Dierdre Shipman, is a knock-out, from Auntie/Baba Yaga’s crone clothes (and mask, by Will Deedler) to Masha’s minimal dress and maximal boots. There’s first-rate lighting by Jenni Mann Becker, and excellent, appropriate live music by Bart Matthews.

But even if all this design richness were removed, these actors would get the points across. Faye Goodwin as naive American Annie–a Russian-American Jew, sent back to Moscow by her mother to improve her Russian and for some darker purpose–grows up before our eyes. She’s staying with her “auntie,” the wicked witch Baba Yaga, who Carly Prentis Jones totally nails. Jessica Flemming as Masha, the across-the-hall neighbor who befriends Annie, proves remarkably moving in this stylized role. Tiny Mikaela Saccoccio buzzes around like a dangerous insect in her pivotal role as Katya, while tall Jeanine Frost commands four different characters, including the whore Natasha. She has the most chilling stories, and is the one the others turn to when things get really rough. Laurel Ullman transforms herself repeatedly for the four remaining supporting characters. What an ensemble!

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) receives advice on the rules of Russian fairytales from Nastya the whore (Jeanine Frost). Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) receives advice on the rules of Russian fairytales from Nastya the whore (Jeanine Frost). Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie the American (Faye Goodwin) prepares to battle potatoes (Jeanine Brinell Frost) bewitched by Baba Yaga. Note the Pussy Riot-style head covering . Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

Annie (Faye Goodwin) prepares to battle potatoes (Jeanine Frost) bewitched by Baba Yaga. Note the Pussy Riot-style head covering . Photo: Jules Odendahl-James.

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