Tuesday, March 29, 2016

174. Review: STUPID FUCKING BIRD (seen March 26, 2016)

"Feel the Bird"

Stars range from 5-1.
It’s highly probable that no play of the last 120 years has inspired as many revisions/adaptations as Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. Over the years, this modern Russian classic, written in 1895 and produced a year later, has been transposed to such far-flung locales as Ireland, the African-American environment of South Carolina’s Sea Islands, the worlds of French cinema and ballet, the Hamptons, an Australian beach, a Canadian theatre company, and,a few months ago, in Songbird, a honkytonk bar in the Deep South. Moreover, The Seagull and Other Birds, an avant-garde, six-actor version in which the characters wear tutus, opened recently to positive reviews on the Lower East Side.
Joey Parsons, Joe Paulik. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The show reviewed here, which premiered in 2013 at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre and has since been seen nationwide, is Aaron Posner’s (My Name Is Asher Lev) award-winning Stupid Fucking Bird, its middle word either altered to "fuxxing" or a simple blank in ads and various outlets. The setting could be anywhere in America today but, given Posner’s imaginative, Pirandello-like, metatheatrical concerns you could say it takes place in whatever theatre it’s in, in this case, the Pearl on West 42nd Street.
Marianna McLellan, Christopher Sears. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Posner’s “sort of” adaptation is a deconstruction that reduces Chekhov’s cast from 14 to seven, revises their names, highlights only their most salient features, chops out much of the plot, and adds a lot of new stuff. Much of the time it seems he's replaced Chekhov's text with its subtext, a reductionist strategy that often doesn't work. Posner uses the material to explore the complexities of love and feeling, as in the original, but also issues of art and truth, reality and theatricality, albeit on a more ambitious level than Chekhov attempted. Chekhov’s Constantin Treplov becomes Conrad Arkadina (Christopher Sears, overdoing the angst), a would-be experimental playwright disgusted with the theatre’s outmoded conventions, as represented by the plays in which his stage and film star mother, Emma Arkadina (Bianca Amato, convincingly self-centered) appears. Con is hungry to revolutionize it with new ideas, if any can be found.
Marianne McLellan. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Marianne McLellan. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Posner breaks the fourth wall by having characters speak at length directly to the audience, even asking for (and expecting) feedback from them. Stupid Fucking Bird, which has its own play-within-a-play, becomes a play-within-a-play itself. In fact, a play Conrad is writing is called Stupid Fucking Bird. All this playful, self-referential activity, as well as the use of nudity, simulated sex, and incessant profanity (at least 110 fucks, fuckeds, fuckings, and motherfuckers), will be of particular interest to theatre graduate students and academics, but some—like the ladies in my row who left at intermission—may find act one (of two) sufficient for their needs.
Dan Dailey, Christopher Sears, Joe Paulik. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The players, under Davis McCallum’s lively direction, often struggle to find the proper tone for embodying both their characters and themselves as the actors playing those characters; since the goal of layering actor-character relative realities is so important, it’s not always easy to believe in or care much about them on any level. Nor do many of the laughs erupt as they should, perhaps because there’s so much kvetching. As in Chekhov, the ones these folks love belong to somebody else. Con’s cutely goofy friend Dev (Joe Paulik, boyishly appealing), Medvedenko's avatar, loves the black-garbed, ukulele-playing cook, Mash (Joey Parsons, quirkily depressive)—“I’m in mourning. For my life”—but she pines gloomily for the petulant Con, whose beloved, the aspiring actress Nina (Marianne McLellan, lovely), longs for the famous writer Doyle Trigorin (oddly dull), paramour of Con’s jealous, egotistical mother, Emma. Only Emma’s brother, the dying Dr. Eugene Sorn (Dan Daily, pleasantly avuncular and grounded)a mashup of Dr. Dorn and Sorinescapes this round-robin of unrequited love; that's because the married woman in The Seagull who’s having an affair with Sorn’s equivalent flew the coop before nesting in Stupid Fucking Bird.
Company of Stupid Fucking Bird. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Con argues at length for the theatre’s need either to find new forms or to revise the old ones because the theatre no longer—if it ever did—has the power to change the world. For this to work, you have to accept Posner’s argument that theatre is in such really bad shape today. It may be troubled but is it really so awful? And do the demographics that support theatre really deserve the offensive attacks Con levels at them?  What Con offers as an alternative surely deserves Emma's opprobrium, if not so rudely expressed. Of course, when The Seagull was written, Constantine’s play, pretentious as it was,signalled the nonrealistic theatre already springing up in Europe. Unfortunately, Con’s affected “site-specific performance piece,” in which director McCallum has Nina covered with white Christmas lights as she spouts artsy-fartsy pseudo-poetry, is so mustily retro-looking it would be more at home in a conventional The Seagull than this modernist appropriation.  
Christopher Sears, Bianca Amato. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The most successful contribution is designer Sandra Goldmark’s interesting set composed of rolling platforms that can be arranged in different ways, allowing the stage’s rear and side walls to be visible as a reminder of the work’s theatrical artifice. In act one, a unique touch is supplied by having these platforms backed by black panels on which the play’s title is spelled out in oversized letters. Amy Clark's costumes are suitably life-like and Mike Inwood's lighting, which often keeps the auditorium semi-illuminated (as in Brecht), does a good job of balancing the production's tonal shifts.
Christopher Sears, Bianca Amato, Erik Lochtefeld. Photo: Russ Rowland.
P.S. Another bird was in the news a few days ago, the tiny one that perched on Bernie Sanders’s podium. Now that was one smart fucking bird.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

Pearl Theatre
555 West Forty-Second Street, NYC
Through May 8



                                                                                                                              

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