Perhaps it’s the deep, elusive and haunting quality of Anton Chekhov’s 19th century plays – where what appears at first glance to be deceptively simple reveals something ominous just beneath the surface – that has inspired so many contemporary retellings.
But it is the pathologically laconic precision of Chekhov’s writing and the angst-filled, self-aware people with way too much time on their hands who populate it that have inspired some recent reinventions that are boldly and wonderfully satirical.
Prime examples are Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which was recently staged by the Cleveland Play House, and Aaron Posner’s “Stupid F**king Bird,” which is being given an absolutely brilliant production at Dobama Theatre. “Stupid F**king Bird,” which is Posner’s take on Chekhov’s 1895 classic “The Seagull,” received its world premiere at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 2013 and became one of the Top 10 most-produced plays in the country the following year.
In “The Seagull,” we are introduced to a colony of characters who burn with unrequited love for one another and who, in “Stupid F**king Bird,” are particularly modern in their expression. They revolve around a neurotic young playwright, Konstantin Tréplev (called Conrad in this contemporary rendering, played by an immediately accessible and always interesting Joseph Lyle Dunn), who speaks about the calcification of theater and of the necessity to create “new forms,” but who is woefully ill-equipped to do so.
He is surrounded by and in conflict with his mother Irina Arkadina (Emma, played by a perfectly divaesque Laura Perrotta), who is a fading actress that finds her son's theatrical experiments ponderous and adolescent; the famous writer Boris Trigorin (Trig, played by a delightfully aloof Josh Innerst), who is Irina’s lover; and the ingénue Nina (played with immense passion by Sarah Durn), whom Konstantin loves but, as a wannabe actress with little talent, is drawn to Boris and his fame.
On the periphery of the drama generated by these characters is Sorn (an enchanting Michael Regnier), a disillusioned doctor and Emma's older brother; Masha (Mash, given spot-on edginess and a looming cloud of doom by Sara Young), a chronically melancholic young woman who hates life but loves Konstantin; and Dev (played with great charm by JP Peralta), a ne’er-do-well friend of Konstantin’s who loves Masha.
In its day, “The Seagull” brazenly challenged popular theatrical forms, chronicling and dissecting baffling human emotions rather than offering plot-fueled melodramas, and adding humor to the follies of humanity and the pursuit of art. “Stupid F**king Bird” follows suit, but with heavy doses of absurdist humor and on steroids.
A transparent theatricality resides in the storytelling, which finds actors who are not in a scene sitting around the periphery of the stage, watching intently, while those in a scene are fiercely grappling for the best way to express their emotional distress as if the playwright has somehow failed them.
And, in blatant acts of metatheatricality that start with the play’s opening line, they routinely acknowledge and engage the audience as if we are not only watching the Posner play they are in but a part of it. There is no regard whatsoever for the fourth wall, which is exhilarating.
Director Nathan Motta embraces, embellishes and has great fun with these and other unconventionalities in Posner’s script, facilitated by Wes Calkin’s lighting, Richard Ingraham’s sound, and the precision with which they are incorporated into the performance. All this takes place on a stark stage, which is standard operating procedure for a Chekhov play, though scenic designer Laura Carlson Tarantowski adds an outline of the exterior of a small house that unfolds to reveal its interior. Tesia Dugan Benson adds character-defining costuming to the mix.
Throughout the production, everything is performed under the watchful eye of a larger-than-life Anton Chekhov cardboard cut-out that is lurking in the back of the stage and given moments of animation by T. Paul Lowry’s clever projections. And, as homage, you might find a character fixing himself a White Russian.
“Stupid F**king Bird” serves up two-and-a-half hours of intelligent, well-acted, risk-taking theater guaranteed to engage and entertain. Not a bad way for Dobama to kick off its 60th season.