Theater Review: LIFE SUCKS (Cygnet in San Diego)

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by Milo Shapiro on February 12, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


For those familiar with Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, it might seem an odd choice to modernize. But Aaron Posner’s tight script, combined with Cygnet’s strong cast, is a breath of fresh air, as it takes Chekhov’s story solidly into the stress of our post-2020 world — and somewhat ahead of itself given the play’s initial version was completed in 2015.

MJ Sieber, Cast

Sonya and her beloved uncle Vanya (Savanna Padilla and MJ Sieber) have struggled for years to maintain the family home that also serves as a congregation point for a number of close friends. Enter Vanya’s pretentious brother “The Professor” (played delightfully despicable by Frank DiPalermo) and his young, beautiful wife Ella (Emily Shackleford). Vanya and the Professor have always been at odds, but the resentment is heightened by Vanya’s poorly hidden longing for Ella. Add to the confusion Vanya’s best friend, the charismatic Dr. Astor (Jorge Rodriguez), who also falls for Ella, and with whom she shares the attraction. How can this horde all get along under the one roof? Therein lies the fun.

Frank DiPalermo, Emily Shackelford

And fun it is! Despite a river of Chekhovian Russian pathos (although converted to Jewish angst here), there are a lot of laughs in Life Sucks. Beyond the sharp script, the production breaks the fourth wall more consistently than almost any scripted-plot performance this reviewer has ever seen. Several of the characters go beyond simply monologuing to patrons; they encourage actual dialogue with us every time they wave for the house lights to come up, improvising in character as we give them advice or share our perspectives. Riveting yet brief enough and well-paced under Rob Lufty’s direction, these interludes never throw the program off its necessary course.

Frank DiPalermo

Because of the exaggerated nature of the characters, Act I starts out feeling a bit stagy and stilted, but over time that same tone is part of what makes the show work so well.

The Cast

Despite the Vanya-centered title, this is very much an ensemble script with most players getting about equal time as we explore the internal and external struggles of each. The Ella role, played so well by Ms. Shackelford, becomes the most pivotal one because she isn’t just suffering, she’s also being pulled in differing directions as she tries to keep the peace without imploding.

MJ Sieber, Beatrice Basso, Jorge Rodriguez

About halfway through Act 1, the seven character relationships are directly and emphatically outlined for the audience in an aside, which was a good choice on behalf of the playwright and especially true with this casting. There’s a bit of willing suspension that both Misters Sieber and Rodriguez could be a full generation older than Ms. Padilla, but once we understand the roles, we let that go.

Emily Shackelford, Beatrice Basso

Life Sucks, with its frequent f-bombs and references to modern ills such as global warming, may bristle a few Chekhov purists, but for the rest of us, Cygnet’s production pulls us into a fascinating look at how timeless the internal struggles of mankind really are.

Beatrice Basso, Cast

photos by Karli Cadel Photography

The Cast

Life Sucks
Cygnet Theatre Company
Old Town Theater, 4040 Twiggs St.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on Feb 27, 2022
for tickets, call 619-337-1525 or visit Cygnet

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Mizerany February 14, 2022 at 10:33 am

Thank you for the wonderful review of Life Sucks.

One correction: Ella is played by Emily Shackleford. Megan Carmitchel is the understudy and she has yet to go on.



Tony Frankel February 14, 2022 at 10:59 am

Thanks Michael — it has been fixed!


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