From left, Jensen Power, Evan Sokol, Dave Sikula, Emily Stone, Brittany Sims, Gabriel Montoya and Linda Ayres-Frederick appear in “Life Sucks,” an adaptation of “Uncle Vanya.” (Courtesy Jay Yamada)

‘Life Sucks’ amusingly updates ‘Uncle Vanya’

Custom Made takes playful approach with Aaron Posner’s adaptation

If Aaron Posner’s metatheatrical adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” loses some of its subtlety (as reflected in the title, “Life Sucks,” and in an early pronouncement that this play is about love, longing and loss), it nevertheless retains, and even enhances, the Russian master’s sense of life’s absurdities.

Set in “the ridiculous present,” it also retains the poignancy of his yearning characters, here seen as American and mostly Jewish.

And Custom Made Theatre Company’s production, directed by Brian Katz, has fun with Posner’s playful approach, but at times sacrifices the necessary depth and authenticity of connections among characters.

Most of Chekhov’s unhappy folks are present, some renamed and in slightly altered guises: There’s the pedantic, sickly and aging professor (a hale and hearty but otherwise convincing Dave Sikula); his sexy and indolent young wife, Ella (Emily Stone, indicating indolence with fake yawns but believable at times as a restless, frustrated beauty — a “sexy ocelot” who doesn’t understand her own allure); the professor’s lovesick daughter, Sonia (a charming Jensen Power); the doctor with his modern ideas that no one is interested in (Gabriel Montoya, full of impish, pent-up energy); Pickles (portrayed as a lesbian, played by a delightfully quirky Brittany Nicole Sims); a family friend, Babs (Linda Ayres-Frederick, wonderfully droll); and the titular Vanya, wallowing in drink and self-pity (Evan Sokol, who captures Vanya’s absurdity but not his agony).

Posner goes straight for the (serio-comic) jugular with this take on “Vanya.”

The cast talks directly to the audience, soliciting advice on their dilemmas (can I ever get Ella to love me? wonders Vanya), musing about the vagaries of life and unrequited love, even asking about the audience’s own lives (Are you happy? Did you make mistakes?) and acknowledging that we’re unlikely to divulge personal secrets here among strangers.

At another point, the characters tell us things they love (“a cool pillow on a hot night,” “kittens,” etc.) and, later, what they hate.

And Pickles declares, “Life does not suck! I repudiate that title!”

Vanya fantasizes about what life would be like if we lived entirely in the present moment, like animals, not knowing about death.

Pickles wonders how love can disappear; “Everyone I’ve ever loved, I still love,” she declares.

Babs calls the doctor a “broken, fabulous, ridiculous human being.”

And so are they all, in this light-hearted and ultimately life-affirming examination of what might be called depression as an existential condition.

REVIEW

Life Sucks

Presented by Custom Made Theatre Company

Where: 533 Sutter St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays; closes June 1

Tickets: $20 to $45

Contact: (415) 798-2682, custommade.org

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