Stupid Fucking Bird (2015)

By Aaron Posnersfb-poster-11x17-web

Directed by Jonathan L. Green

Produced by Carlisle Hart, LLC

Originally Produced by Sideshow Theatre

At Victory Gardens Theater, Chicago

A Chekhov for Our Theatre

Stupid Fucking Bird was the second new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull I saw in a week, demonstrating the hold that the Russian author and his story of creative frustration has on the upcoming generation of artists. Like the new musical Seagull, Stupid Fucking Bird, which debuted at Woolly Mammoth in Washington DC in 2013, is a compassionate updating that captures the fears, hopes, and dysfunctions of people who hope to remake the theatre for a world they are not comfortable in, as a means of improving both their art and society. The show was first mounted in Chicago by Sideshow Theatre Company, which makes it its mission to produce “familiar stories [through] unorthodox methods,” and therefore seemed the ideal candidate to capture its message. This summer’s remount, a commercial production being funded by a new entity called Carlisle Hart, LLC, is, from what I gather, much tighter, and, accompanied by merchandise and vodka provided by CH Distillery, provides hope that smart business practices and the bold, playful instinct that would inspire someone to name their quite intellectually serious play “Stupid Fucking Bird” may yet find a way to co-exist.

Photos courtesy of Jonathan L. Green
Photos courtesy of Dan Finnen.

We are first introduced to Mash (Katy Carolina Collins) and Dev (Matt Fletcher) while they are arguing over whose life is worse: his, because he loves her, or hers, because she loves his best friend? It is clear from the outset that this time, their whining is fresh; both Mash and Dev are sharp, and direct about their wants. They are also deeply uncomfortable, and therefore, hilarious. On this particular day, they are awaiting Dev’s said friend Con’s (Nate Whelden) “site specific performance event,” a form he became interested in with his girlfriend Nina (Nina O’Keefe) as a way of revitalizing the performing arts. It’s so much better than dramas, they think, because without the falseness of imitating actions, playing characters, or designing an imaginary space, the performers and audience can interact directly and honestly. And, because Con’s mother, Emma (Stacy Stoltz), is a stage actress, so what better way to demonstrate their independence?

Cody Proctor, Stacy Stoltz, and Norm Woodel
Cody Proctor, Stacy Stoltz, and Norm Woodel

Well, the performance does not go as planned, and Emma isn’t all that pleased with how the text of Con’s “event” dismisses her work. Nor does she think its repeated mantra, “we are here,” is of any particular insight or meaning. Con is deeply stung by her disdain, despite returning it, and runs off. But Nina’s performance attracts the attention of Emma’s boyfriend, the famous writer Trig (Cody Proctor), who Con loathes, but Nina, with her daddy issues, is quite taken with. The main concern Con was trying to convey, whether we are really fulfilled in our lives and connected with each other, is greeted with sympathy by one viewer, his genial old uncle, Sorn (Norm Woodel). But Sorn also likes Cirque du Soleil, so to Con, his praise is almost as bad as scorn from someone who knows what they’re talking about.

Aaron Posner’s stage directions say that the acting “should be very, very good.” This cast adheres to that. From Stoltz’s proud, hardened, Emma, to Fletcher’s amiable, dorky Dev, the intricate dynamics of this household spin out naturally and smoothly. Posner made their jobs easier by inserting several moments of direct address, in which the characters bluntly state their desires, but the actors also have an easy chemistry with each other, as well as the audience. The script is adjusted slightly to add local flavor, but the actors also improvise when the need arises. Jonathan Green’s direction keeps them snappy, and is full of clever moments like Emma and Trig gravitating toward the outdoor platform where Nina performs. As Mash, Katy Carolina Collins accompanies herself on a ukulele to several angsty, but self-aware and comedic songs that earn the audience’s affection. And yet, in a demonstration of Chekhovian perception of everyone’s virtues and follies, the scene in which Nina calls out Masha on all of her negativity and spite earns O’Keefe one of the strongest shows of audience approval.

Katy Carolina Collins, Matt Fletcher, and Nate Whelden
Katy Carolina Collins, Matt Fletcher, and Nate Whelden

The opening night audience was the youngest I have ever seen fill a theatre with a couple hundred seats. Granted, a lot of them I recognized as industry members, but one of Posner’s play’s greatest strengths is how humorously, but urgently, it voices the concerns I heard repeated constantly in my theatre department and see my peers expressing in my newsfeeds. Con has an amazing rant about how theatre has desperately flailed at retaining a shrinking niche audience on ever decreasing budgets that was received with many knowing chuckles. (For what it’s worth, arts management is a rather ghettoized skill in most training programs.) Other characters mull over how much pain and fear they feel due to loving each other, while the seemingly most well-adjusted of them complain of feeling nothing at all. Stupid Fucking Bird succeeds as an updated look at artists’ neuroses, but I see no reason why its appeal would be limited to artists. Besides touching on universal themes of anxiety and helplessness, it is also wickedly funny.

Highly Recommended

Jacob Davis
3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed July 25, 2015

For more information, see Stupid Fucking Bird’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Victory Gardens Zacek McVay Theater, 2433 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $15-49; to order, call 773-871-3000 or visit sideshowtheatre.org. Plays Wednesdays-Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 3:00 pm through August 30. Running time is two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission.

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