Con: “She’s never going to love me…is she?”
Con: “Not ever, right?”
Dev: “Right. Not ever.”
Dateline—“So much feeling!” The pleasurable surprise of Stupid Fucking Bird, Aaron Posner’s “sort of” adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, at Stage West for its regional premiere, is that the play is both blazingly clever and deeply emotional.
Posner could have soared most of the way on quips and wit alone—but lucky for us, he didn’t leave it at that. This bright new bird, done in 21st-century dress and with 21st century snark, is filled (stuffed?) from beak to tail with evocations of the human heart that don’t merely feel true. They feel recognizably, quiveringly Chekhovian: rueful and regretful, smiling on our dreams and ambitions (but mocking them too), painfully aware of life’s fragility—and of the cosmic “self-destruct” button counting down our moments. Just like Star Trek, as one character points out.
Altogether, Posner’s Bird is a gutsy and loveable pull-apart of Chekhov’s iconic play, given vivid life by director Emily Scott Banks and a cast well up to this word-playing, densely packed script. There are lines and conversations here well worth remembering (and bald, funny snatches of song from original music creator James Sugg), but coming so fast and furiously at times you’ll be leaning in to hear it all.
It’s still the same old story: A slightly fading star and her famous-writer lover, her play-writing son and the gotta-act girl he loves, all meet at the lake house with predictably itchy results. Dev loves Mash, Mash loves Con, Con loves Nina, Nina longs for Trigorin (who should be in love with Emma, but…).
It’s still the same old dacha, in fact: a beautifully rendered 19th-century Russian lake cottage set among the birch trees (an impressive Stage West debut by set designer Brian Clinnin, though perhaps too literal for this high-flight of imagination). Derek C. Whitener’s costumes, curated versions of what we see/wear every day, provide a counternote (along with the play’s mouthy language) that tells us we aren’t in your grandpappy’s Russia any more. (You may have heard that Whitener was attacked and hospitalized a few weeks ago in Dallas; Stage West is taking donations for his hospital bills at the box office.)
Conrad or “Con” (Garret Storms in a frantic, funny, heart-twisting performance) is at the story’s core, the equivalent of Chekhov’s Konstantin, a fledgling playwright and son to actress Emma Arkadina (Laurel Whitsett). To say Con wears heart on sleeve isn’t taking things far enough: he’s all raw nerve endings—no sleeve, no skin, no protective layer at all. He’s falling to pieces from the start of the play, but is so magnetic we don’t notice for a time. Con has loved beautiful neighbor Nina (Alexandra Lawrence) since childhood. She’s his one and only—and symbolically, the one person he casts in the “new form” play Con presents for his mother’s approval.
Emma isn’t good at approval. “Don’t judge,” she warns the audience with an exasperated side eye. “I don’t hate him [her son]. But he does…bother me.” Whitsett’s Emma is an ego and a half, but she’s cheerily clear-eyed and practical, whether forgiving herself for poor parenting or telling her straying lover Trigorin (Chris Hury preens hilariously as he plays the VIP to a worshipful girl) just why an affair with young Nina will screw up his life. And Nina? We write her off as sweet and simple at our peril: Lawrence ratchets up Nina’s wilfullness and ambition in such careful increments that the character—and the performance—take us by surprise. In the end, she is the only character who finds a hard truth in the “stupid fucking bird” Con presents to her to show his…love?
These flashier birds draw the eye, but the remaining characters are equally compelling: Emma’s part-time cook Mash (Chekhov’s Masha, transformed by Kelsey Milbourn into the curious mix—upbeat/under-employed/woebegone/resentful—that marks a twenty-something of our own time), who adores Con; Dev (Matthew Grondin playing a simple dude—or is he?), a test tutor and Con’s friend, who loves Masha and hangs around mostly to be in her orbit; and Emma’s brother Dr. Sorn (Randy Pearlman is wised-up and wistful in the play’s loveliest monologues), who has seen a lot of life through his patients…but doesn’t feel he’s lived much himself.
Stupid Fucking Bird is one of a crowd of Chekhov adaptations that seem determined to (quoting a Bird line) “make some fresh choices!” for one of American theater’s most loved playwrights. Bird opened first at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 2013-‘14, with follow-up productions in Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, and a well-reviewed New York premiere at The Pearl Theatre Company in spring 2016.
One of those fresh choices is the sheer physicality of the play—and director Banks romps her cast across every inch of stage space: Mash perches cozily close to the first row in her goth-girl black clothes (“Black…is slimming” she says in mockery of Masha’s first Seagull line), strumming a ukulele and singing:
Life is a muddle/Life is a chore
Life is a burden/Life is a bore
This apple is rotten right down to the core
Actors not in a scene watch silently in shadowed corners. Con climbs to a high perch (his safe place—a boyhood tree house?) when life is too much. Nina dangles from a tree swing like a little girl. And at all times, we find, the actors are moving and looking in all directions: they know we’re watching them.
“Yes, of course I know I’m in a play,” says Con irritably, looking over his shoulder as he talks about the state of theater with Dev…and with us.
So don’t expect to just sit there, folks: the actors in Bird don’t merely talk to the audience (how 20th century of them). No, they want us to talk back. (“They won’t,” Dev tells Con. “They know you’re fictional.” But eventually, after some uneasy wiggles, we do.) This time, says director Banks in her production notes, the audience is “here to play”—and in a mode that’s closer to Facebook or Snapchat than Chekhov.
“How can I get her to love me again?” ask Conrad, in despair over Nina’s sudden infatuation with suave Trigorin. A long silence. No, really, he says, “I’m actually-actually asking. Does anyone have any ideas?” And he’ll wait there, toes edging half off the stage, until he gets someone to speak. Posner is asking us to put some skin in the game, and how exhilarating is that? How often have we wanted to reach a hand into the plot of a play to redirect or rescue a character…or to slap him/her into the next county?
Clearly, Bird is a 21st century animal as free-flying as social media, where we’re all up in each other’s lives and troubles even if we’ve never met. The back-and-forth conversation between stage and seats changes things, though. As an audience, we’ve now left ourselves accountable, just a bit, for how things go onstage. Stuff will happen—and we can’t say we were uninvolved.
Bird plays with Chekhov on a number of levels, from a photo of the man himself, speared into a birch limb as a tempting target. There’s a gun onstage and, by Chekhovian tradition, it must be put to use, if only to take pot shots at the playwright. And there’s oh-so-apropos fun with language, too, notably a hilarious riff on the word “thwarted.” Posner may have come upon the best single-word descriptor for Chekhov’s—and Bird’s—characters, eternally convinced they’ve been had (read: thwarted) by an amused, uninvolved God who doesn’t want them to get what they want.
Like Chekhov, Posner skewers the obsessions and philosophizing that consume our days…and that may not mean a thing in 100 years. Does theater have value if “nothing in the world” changes? Are plays too “timid” and “tepid” today, as theaters try desperately to keep “ancient Jews and gay men and retired academics and a few random others who did plays in high school trickling through their doors”? Ouch. Are any of us authentic: Do people feel all they claim to feel—or are we performing, playing “the role of me” like actors on a stage? Can we ever know another person’s experience of life? “When you see an old guy, remember this,” says Dr. Sorn with wry timing. “You never know.”
Posner ends by surprising us not with easy ways out, but with small visions of hope—especially from the pair who most closely resemble (dare we say it?) the theater audiences of tomorrow: Mash and Dev. We’re so invested as an “active” audience by Act Three that the discovery of this couple going “on and on” gets an immediate, no-coaxing round of applause. Yes, love is awful and impossible (“even when you get the girl”), but “here we are” and that’s where we live each day, one by one.
If we don’t, as some will, fall into despair.
So the play, as Chekhov used to insist to skeptical actors in Moscow, turns out to be a comedy after all: unhappiness for some, but for others a coming together, and a grace note calling loud and clear…as a bird.
On and on and on we go
And on and on and on days flow
Lonely, lovely, rich and rough
All too much…and never enough, on & on