By Sarah Downs
“Stupid F**cking Bird” is a crafty, seditious and dramatic re-interpretation of Chekhov’s “The Seagull”, that beloved chuckle fest about longing, lost love and death. In this adaptation, Aaron Posner has taken a grand dame of theatre and modernized her in a brazen production that dares you go the distance. Over the top would be understatement. The story of an earnest young playwright attempting to invent a new kind of theatre keep the girl and finally earn his mother’s approval blazes from curtain to curtain. And by ‘curtain’ I mean the cleverly designed series of modular doors that glide on wheels to create various configurations of abstract space, including literally framing moments of the play within the play. We watch as actors move through the layers that separate their various iterations, in a constant flow that takes us through the theatrical fourth wall and back again, assisted by lighting that inventively defines playing space.
At the top of the show the doors are ranged across the stage with the words “Stupid F**king Bird” (minus asterisks) scrawled across them. The action kicks off with a cry of what could be “The play’s the thing.” Instantly the stage comes to life as individual characters fling open various doors to introduce themselves in front of that array, sometimes expressing their thoughts directly to the audience, yet always participating in one play which, when the ‘curtain’ parts, elides into another. We learn of the triangle among the quirky Mash (Joey Parsons) who chases after that young playwright Con (Christopher Sears) while best pal Dev (Joe Paulik) moons after Mash. Meanwhile, Con and his muse, the beautiful aspiring actress Nina (Marianna McClellan) have been sweethearts since childhood. At a gathering at the home of Con’s uncle, Eugene Sorn (Dan Daily) Con arranges to debut his “Site Specific Performance Event” starring Nina. Sorn’s sister, Con’s mother Emma Arkadina (Bianca Amato), herself a famous actress arrives, ego in overdrive and lover at her elbow, to witness the launch of this new art form, and immediately scorns it into oblivion. As the performance ends abruptly, Con storms off, his fragile confidence shattered by her derision. Emma’s lover, Doyle Trigorin (Erik Lochtefeld) an established author with a reputation for greatness immediately catches Nina’s starstruck eye and another love triangle is born. Nina pursues Trigorin with unexpected single-mindedness as Con fruitlessly vies for her attention with increasing desperation. As the scene changes a single shot is heard. And that’s just for starters.
Director Davis McCallum wrangles all of the manic elements of an over-the-top script with the skill of Ben Hur at his chariot. So much could spin wildly out of control and yet it does not. Thus freed from danger, these actors fearlessly charge at each other and us in a high stakes game of ‘look at me!, no look at me!’ This Bird isn’t linear. It’s more like a flashmob. Past and present fuse as the actors weave in and out of parallel stories – in character in the play, and in character observing themselves in that play. Having actors break the fourth wall risks coming across as disingenuous rather than innovative but the conceit works well here. In one riotous moment of anarchy, they literally fight for our attention, drawing the audience into the action.
The acting is excellent, particularly the bravura performance of Sears as the aspiring yet thwarted playwright whose emotional life is constantly on the verge of collapse. He is at times overwhelmingly manic, but that is perhaps unavoidable, given the relentless motion of the writing. As Nina, McClellan possesses a touch of the exquisite. Angelic yet earthly, McClellan roots herself on stage with a deceptive delicacy, smile constant yet never arch or artificial. In a heart wrenching final scene she mesmerizes. In this scene as well as the confrontation between Emma and Trigorin we hear some of the most compelling writing in the play. In the latter scene, as Emma pleads with Trigorin to stay with her Amato speaks the text in brilliant living color, giving us everything from soup to nuts.
You do have to wonder, though, why Nina and Emma are so desperate for Trigorin to love them. He’s so smug he can’t even generate the heat to fight for what he (momentarily) wants. ‘I’m a lover, not a fighter’ could be his motto. When Emma discovers Nina and him mid-tryst, he says to her “Let me go.” not “I’m leaving.” Perhaps it is the contrast between energy levels that undercuts Lochtefeld’s chemistry in this role. His Trigorin has flashes of steeliness and lust, but in the end I was not convinced of his casting. I had a similar difficulty with Daily, who as Sorn has trouble fighting his way to the front of the line.
In welcome relief from the fray we have Mash the cook who rarely cooks and Dev, the devoted and persistent side kick. Dev knows it’s hopeless to love Mash and she knows that he knows it is hopeless, but he nonetheless longs for her to look at him, just once, the way she looks at Con. Paulik underplays Dev character with sly wit and paradoxical confidence. His humorous asides counter the relentless intensity of Con’s mania. Dev is the audience’s secret friend, the guy who offers sotto voce commentary that might just be what we are already thinking.
Mash serenades us with funny little songs to the strumming of her ukulele (don’t judge), yearns after Con, and blows everyone else off. It’s great. Of course Dev loves her! She’s cute-hipster-angsty-girl with depth. Parsons is excellent, adding refreshing yet un-self conscious quirkiness with her drop dead line readings and timing. She’s no mouse, either. In a terrific Act II monologue she takes you to the heart of her hidden misery, which makes her character’s transformation at the end of the play a bit disappointing. She smiles. Ew.
Stupid F**cking Bird, presented by the Pearl Theatre Company, Hal Brooks, Artistic Director; written/re-imagined by Aaron Posner from “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov; directed by Davis McCallum.
WITH: Bianca Amato (Emma Arkadina), Dan Daily (Eugene Sorn), Erik Lochtefeld (Doyle Trigorin), Marianna McClellan (Nina), Joey Parsons (Mash), Joe Paulik (Dev) and Christopher Sears (Conrad Arkadina)
Scenic design by Sandra Goldmark; costumes by Amy Clark; lighting by Mike Inwood; sound design by Mikhail Fiksel; production manager and technical director Gary Levinson; production stage manager Katharine Whitney.
Playing through April 8 at the Pearl Theatre (555 West 42nd St.); for tickets go to pearltheatre.org or call 212-563-9261.