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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

Datebook: 'Life Sucks' but in a good way

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Jesse Folks
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Members of the company of Heartland Theatre in "Life Sucks," adapted from "Uncle Vanya" by Anton Chekhov.

Heartland Theatre’s current project is to make the most Russian of Russian plays accessible to a Bloomington-Normal audience.

"Life Sucks" plays the next two weekends. Guest director Liz Fisher works with an ensemble cast in this smart, fun adaptation of Chekhov's classic play, "Uncle Vanya." In an interview with Charlie Schlenker, Fisher said adaptor Aaron Posner is the best possible introduction to Chekhov.

(This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

Fisher: Posner has found a way to keep the poetry that Chekhov has and keep the humanity that is a hallmark of all of his plays. The thing that always keeps me coming back to Chekhov is this incredible blend of comedy and tragedy in the most beautiful, messy, utterly human way. This sort of like laughing through tears is iconically Chekhov. Posner captures that spirit.

Schlenker: How does Posner position it for Americans rather than Russians?

Some of the very strict Russian references just aren't there. He's able to imagine it a little bit more. But for Posner, like Chekhov, the story is really about the relationships between this group of kind of ‘Isle of Misfit Toys,’ that have all gathered at this sort of country estate to try to figure out their lives and how they connect to each other, or fail to connect miserably, which of course then ends up resulting in some fantastic moments of comedy. Posner's Vanya doesn't necessarily have the most optimistic view on life. He is madly in love with somebody who he should not be in love with, who is married to somebody else. And of course, that ... makes things very messy. But the core of those relationships remains the same.

Schlenker: Would you give the audience, our listeners, a quickie synopsis?

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Steve Rogers Photography
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Guest Director Liz Fisher, of Austin, Texas came north to winter to direct Heartland Theatre's production of 'Life Sucks.'

Fisher: The play opens at a sort of country estate owned by a woman named Sonya and her father, the professor. He has been away for a long time living with his third wife, not Sonya's mother. They've suddenly returned to this country estate where Sonya and her Uncle Vanya live.

Not only does Vanya fall in love with Sonya but his next-door neighbor, Astor, does, too. She, is, of course, already married. That creates fun challenges and trials and tribulations. The rest of the play is watching these people try to muddle through. And we look at this family in the best kinds of way such as when family gets together for Thanksgiving dinner. Their baggage from the past, the funny things, the sad things, the traumatic things bubble over, sometimes to heartbreaking effect, as we see people's worlds come crashing down around them, but also to heartwarming effect in the sense that we watch them take care of each other and see that even in the midst of some pretty terrible things that love and care for family endures.

Schlenker: A lot of mainstream American comedy in the current moment tends toward either over the top absurdism or biting satire. How does this sort of tragi-comic approach that Chekhov has fit in our culture today?

Fisher: The comedy for this piece for me is a bit of a blend, right? Sometimes our characters are quite literally falling down on stage in a very classic physical comedy, clowning like Three Stooges. The thing I think is so smart about the play is it never sits in one kind of comedy for too long. Sometimes, we go from these big clowning moments with puppets and people doing pratfalls to more of a modern Seinfeldian or situational comedy, where you're laughing at the absolute ridiculousness of the situation. The characters don't think they're being ridiculous. They are being sincere and heartfelt. The audience can take that step back and laugh at them because we see too much of ourselves in them and recognize that this is going to end badly and it's funny because of that.

Liz Fisher is an interdisciplinary theater-maker who explores mixed realities, immersive theater, and game mechanics in reimagining works. Fisher is the guest director for the Heartland Theatre production of "Life Sucks," playing in Bloomington-Normal on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, through Feb. 19. at the theater, 1110 Douglas St., One Normal Plaza, Normal.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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