'Stupid F—ing Bird': Theater Review
Chekhov's "The Seagull" is given a highly contemporary makeover in Pasadena.
The third Chekhov takeoff this year in Los Angeles (could I have missed any?), after The Country House and Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike, Stupid F---ing Bird may be the most self-consciously post-modern of the trio, with its resolutely present-day argot, deliberate ironic posturing and winking asides to the audience. It tries rather strenuously not to be boring or “classical,” and indeed that effort may be the only tiresome thing about it, as it almost unaccountably captures the timeless humor and complex comprehension of human foibles characteristic of any good adaptation of Chekhov.
Indeed, playwright Aaron Posner has made a specialty of adaptations from Twain to Kesey to Vonnegut, as his excellent rendition of Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev illustrated earlier this year at the Fountain Theatre. Here he has taken a freer, almost aggressive hand to the original text. Yet paradoxically the more he trashes the familiar tone of what can sometimes be over-reverent restraint and subtlety, the better he conveys Chekhov’s essences of angst, romantic frustration and the hunger for Art to seek new forms capable, perhaps, of changing society’s complacent mediocrity. He ends up tracking Chekhov uncommonly closely, finding contemporary correspondences that match the crescendo of intrigue like a cover version with feedback added for some noise color.
Konstantin becomes Connie (Will Bradley, so memorable in Boston Court’s The Twentieth Century Way and most recently in HBO’s The Normal Heart), the tortured wannabe who fashions “performance pieces” rather than plays, unable to attract any positive attention from his self-absorbed movie star mother, Emma Arkadina (Amy Pietz, series regular on The Amazing Mrs. Novak and Caroline and the City), who is returning to their country home with her new lover, celebrated novelist Doyle Trigorin (Matthew Floyd Miller). Connie loves the free-spirited aspiring actress Nina (Zarah Mahler), only to watch her fall into the thrall of Trigorin, while he remains oblivious to the crush carried by Mash (Charlotte Gulezian), a guitar-strumming folkie famously wearing black “in mourning for my life,” who spurns the affections of average guy Dev (Adam Silver). Even the ineffectual Dr. Sorn (Arye Gross, still vivid from the quartet of Chekhov stories mounted by Antaeus ten years ago), by far the most normal and benign presence, aches with unresolved disquiet and doubt.
Director Michael Michetti plays a shrewdly two-faced game here, punching up the attitude and deploying Sean Cawelti’s manic projections to tart out Connie’s ill-met monologue for Nina, while surreptitiously building the framework for penetrating into the durable soul of Chekhovian malaise. With the help of his uniformly excellent, nimbly game actors, the characters no longer feel remote from us in place or time, but rather highly relatable with an apparently effortless connection to any of our lives. I was quite taken aback to find myself channeling my inner Konstantin as his rants uncomfortably reminded me of my earnest dinner conversation before the show, although nearly everyone on display exhibits feelings and behavior that strike close to home. You will find a lot to identify with in this intriguing, nearly dizzying, production. It’s a way to experience what we remember so meaningfully about Chekhov afresh.
Regrettably, the dizziness finally unmoors the text in the final scenes, where Posner paints himself into a too preciously aware corner from which no panicked exertions can plausibly extricate. Bradley struggles manfully against the arbitrariness of the “open” ending(s) but ironically finds himself trapped by the quandaries created by Posner’s determination to break with Chekhov’s dictum that the gun must go off in the final act, and so all ends with a compulsive whimper instead of a bang.
This West Coast premiere, jointly presented by two redoubtable local companies, Circle X and Boston Court, pools their creative resources to salutary effect, not least in the impressively rich-appearing sets of Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, following her contrastingly disheveled abandoned swimming pool in Rogue Machine’s Penelope by a bare fortnight.
Venue: The Theatre @ Boston Court, Pasadena (through August 10)
Cast: Will Bradley, Zarah Mahler, Amy Pietz, Matthew Floyd Miller, Charlotte Gulezian, Arye Gross, Adam Silver
Director: Michael Michetti
Playwright: Aaron Posner, adapted from 'The Seagull' by Anton Chekhov
Set designer: Stephanie Kerley Schwartz
Lighting designer: Elizabeth Harper
Music: James Sugg
Sound designer & musical direction: Robert Oriol
Costume designer: Mallory Kay Nelson
Projection designer: Sean Cawelti
Presented by The Theatre @ Boston Court and Circle X Theatre Company