Smart F#*king Play

stupid fucking bird Photo by Patrick Weishampel 2

Stupid Fucking Bird implants itself behind laughs in new existential play.

Only when I was home from the theatre and laying may head onto the pillow, lights off, quiet, and all alone, did I realize how powerful this play was. Playwright Aaron Posner has a reputation for careful, methodical adaptation of classic theatre works, but he turns a page on The Seagull, the Russian masterpiece by Chekhov (1895). I had never even heard of this important classic until last month, when I was covering a new site specific immersive performance by Source Material Collective. They composed a few nods to The Seagull in that work.

Connect the dots of synchronicity when the play I’m now reviewing pokes fun at all sides of theatre by developing a protagonist, Conrad Arkadina, who is showing a site specific immersive performance to his close friends and family.

Conrad and his rants.

Conrad and his rants.

The “fourth wall” is broken at the start as he walks out and asks the audience to say “start the fucking play.” Supporting characters, Dev and Mash actually lead the first scene. Dev is Conrad’s best friend and is in love with Mash who is in love with Conrad. Mash is a brooding woman. She demonstrates it with an ironically upbeat song. Dev expresses his longing for her to requite his love, but she lets him down gently instead.

The next scene introduces Nina, Conrad’s alluring aspiring actress girlfriend. She means everything to him. They’re preparing to show a site specific performance, it turns out for the backyard of his own residence. That is the next scene, where we meet his relatively young and sexy actress mother, Emma Arkadina, who is in love with Doyle Trigorin, a world-famous author.

The patriarch of the family whose home serves as the primary setting of the play is Doctor Eugene Sorn, Emma’s brother and Conrad’s uncle. Those seven characters make up the entire cast. It is an all white cast. The flavor of white privilege is peppered throughout the drama.

“Here we are,” is repeated at the start of the performance, in every possible way, which is funny satire on amateur experimental theatre. She carries on, “are we actually here?” and stuff like that. Emma interrupts, she thinks it is an attack against her, mostly because it challenges everything she knows about theatre. But Conrad is trying to challenge the world, to change it, to make something that, as he puts it, actually happens.

Nina, Doyle, Emma, Dev, Eugene, and Mash (left to right). Photo by Patrick Weishampel.

Nina, Doyle, Emma, Dev, Eugene, and Mash (left to right). Photos by Patrick Weishampel.

Emma’s offensive sends Conrad off running. He is a sensitive guy. That is also when Doyle meets Nina. Very quickly, Nina falls in love with the brilliant author. Conrad loses his mind. This is the story that plays out in three acts, with intermission.

What makes this play great is the way that it uses old and new methodology side by side. If one of the most important challenges Chekhov made to theatre was the focused use of character development versus plot, then this play overlaps that by strongly developing characters while providing a juicy story.

The wall between audience and artist is broken at the outset, allowing characters to turn and interact directly with us, break out into song, or even reference the play that they’re acting in. It’s all very scripted — I think there may be a tiny bit of improvisation. Its style harkens to Shakespeare and Greece while dealing with contemporary existential themes. In fact, at one point Conrad belts out something like, “Why do we need new forms — why don’t we just use the forms we already have, really well?!”

Mash (left) and Doyle (right), Photo by Patrick Weishampel

Mash (left) and Doyle (right), photo by Patrick Weishampel.

The existential ideas, especially its nods to Nietzsche, also interweave what was cutting edge philosophy at the turn of the 20th Century. It all applies quite well. Contemporary dread, fear and trembling, our broken sense of will power and authenticity are distilled in dialogue. A drunken Mash says it perfectly after an exhausting rant about the bullshit hoops we jump through in this broken, inauthentic world, just to live and survive, when “all we want is someone to snuggle up to.”

As I lay in bed alone last night after this show, my head whirling around in that play, lines were just popping up like corn, sticking to my personal anxieties. Or maybe my personal anxieties popped up and the play was like a sticky stream of caramel, sweetening it all up. I suppose that something actually happened in there.

You may hardly notice that you’re being deeply affected by this play because its so funny, and the story engages you. In many ways, its an inside joke for anyone involved in theatre, but it transcends that and becomes an inside cosmic joke for anyone that is human and can see the absurd existence we’re all striving for.

Scenic design by Misha Kachman cleverly coordinates with lighting by Colin K. Bills. Massive stencils on the back wall give the iconic image of Chekhov a near constant presence through the play, establishing the self-referential constant. Lighting chiefly eliminates that presence at crucial moments as you get sucked back into the story. Scene changes are achieved sometimes with lighting, and so is mood, backed up with solid performances.

Darius Pierce (Dev) and Charles Leggett (Eugene) might be the secret weapons of the play. Not only do they carry minor roles very well, but they’re probably the most likable characters. I’m not thoroughly convinced of Nina’s allure, played by Katie deBuys, nor Doyle’s genius, played by Cody Nickell. Ian Holcomb walks a fine line as Conrad, interacting with the audience frequently, and pulls it off. Kimberly Gilbert (Mash) and Kate Eastwood Norris (Emma) present their characters well all around, with Norris stealing the scene in the kitchen, in the second act.

Stupid Fucking Bird is directed by Howard Shalwitz and presented by Portland Center Stage through March 27. It was produced originally by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 2013.




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