Stupid F**king Bird
Victory Gardens Theater
Chicago – Playwright Aaron Posner calls his spin on Anton Chekhov’s early drama “The Seagull” by the saucy title of “Stupid F**king Bird.” The reader can place the “uc” in its proper place in the expletive and we can move on to discuss one of the most stimulating and well staged productions of any Chekhov play that I have ever seen.
“Bird” is a production of the Sideshow Theatre Company and is taking up summer residence at the Victory Gardens Theater after a sold-out storefront run. Hopefully the more visible commercial venue will attract a fresh set of patrons to the show. Newcomers to the adaptation will not be disappointed.
Photo Credit: Dan Finnen
The Sideshow version, under the creative and insightful direction of Jonathan L. Green, does take superficial liberties with Chekhov’s late 1890’s original. This is a very 21st century take on the play, with abundant local references, copious usage of the daunting vividly middle word of the title in assorted conjugations, and the elimination of the artificial wall between performer and audience. Actors speak directly to the audience in scintillating monologues and sometimes the whole ensemble lines up at the front of the stage to shout out their personal feelings, which run deep and passionate. Characters ask question of the audience and expect an answer. Actors can be seen observing the action off stage and there is a heavy use of aisles for entrances and exits.
Most of the performers, costumed by Noel Huntzinger, are dressed in thrift shop chic clothing. The rest of the designing credits go to admirable work by Joe Schermoly (sets),William C. Kirkham (lighting), Christopher M. Laporte (sound), and Jay Tollefsen (properties).
What amazes about this take on the play is how faithful it is to the great Russian dramatist, obviously not literally but in heart and spirit. The production retains the usual laundry list of Chekhovian themes. The characters are all yearning for a better existence while wonder how they got mired in their current bog of a life. The atmosphere is drenched in futility, disappointment, frustration, and overall unhappiness. All the major characters are in love with other characters who don’t return their love, being preoccupied with unsuccessful romantic failures of their own. I don’t recall a Chekhov production in which the despair of unrequited love is so dominant. The characters do not hide their lovelorn agonies under a bushel. They sound off on their suffering with copious tears and begging and pleading for all to see and hear. We hear them and we feel their pain.
The Sideshow adaptation explores the miseries of seven characters. They are, with their Chekhov name equivalents in parentheses, Emma (Irina Arkadina) a famous actress frantically trying to stem off the terrors of middle age; Trig (Trigorin), a popular writer and Irina’s lover; Con (Konstantin), Irina’s adult son, a pretentious playwright who loves Nina; and Nina (Nina), an aspiring actress who falls disastrously in love with Trig. On the periphery of this quartet are Mash (Masha), who loves Con; Sorn (a combination of Dorn and Sorin from the original), a disillusioned middle aged doctor; and Dev (Medvedenko), who is infatuated with Mash.
I’ve waited too long to state that for much of the evening “Bird” is hilarious, for all its woebegone characters. The play is certainly funnier that the somewhat overrated Chekhov derivative “Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike” playing at the Goodman theater. The “Bird” dialogue is witty and face paced, extracting hilarity from the sorrows of the characters without trivializing them. And Posner shows he can grab an audience’s attention when it comes time to get serious as the characters battle their way through their emotional conflicts.
Photo Credit: Dan Finnen
Con’s early feverous monologue ridiculing the state of contemporary theater is a gem, part sour grapes and part artistic bull’s-eyes. Listen carefully because Con’s indictments whiz across the footlights with scorching aural speed. Indignation has rarely been so funny. Nat Wheldon converts the character’s pathetic and ridiculous personality in the original into a real dramatic force that rebalances the play’s center of gravity. Mash sings comical plaintive songs about the dreary state of the world, accompanying herself on amplified guitar. The “Bird” Mash is much more cynical and bitter than the Masha of “The Seagull,” and much more entertaining in Katy Carolina Collins’s fierce performance.
Stacy Stoltz gives a riveting performance as Irina, normally seen as a bitchy failed mother desperately trying to hang on to her fading glamour as time marches on. There is that in Stoltz’s performance but also grit and determination and much common sense. She rather revels in her nastiness but the woman is no Norma Desmond-ish lady wallowing in an unreal world within her mind. Nina O’Keefe’s Nina bursts with youthful urgency as she dedicates herself to an acting career for which she is totally unfit. Hers is the most tragic life in the play but the young woman has guts and she is a survivor and O’Keefe is brilliant in selling the character’s passion for a life that can’t work for her.
Norm Woodel, the senior member of the ensemble, delivers a warm and sympathetic Sorn who recognizes that he has lived a life not worth living and wonders ruefully where it all went wrong. Matt Fletcher’s Dev glides through the play, never the center of attention and resigned with no hard feelings to a life of mediocrity. At least his Dev wins Mash for his wife, though I sense big time compatibility problems in their marital life. Cody Proctor is saddled with the most vaguely defined character as the author Trig, a man who drifts through the years knowing his fame as an author is bogus and willing to be manipulated by Irina after discarding Nina. He’s a hard character to like but he’s too passive to hate.
“Bird” will be an especially galvanizing experience for playgoers who claim to be turned off by Chekhov’s mopey characters kvetching their lives away on distant Russian country estates. The characters in “Bird” connect with the audience, and not just because of the non realistic stage devices that enliven the production. We feel the passion (that essential word again) that churns through each character. We can pity and laugh at these men and women because they are “now” people and we can recognize their suffering as real and not distant and stagey.
In a way, the startling title of Posner’s adaptation is unfortunate (though the title fits within the context of the action). It suggests an “aren’t we being subversive” approach to a classic play that warns of self indulgence by the adapter, director, and performers. No such thing with “Bird.” Posner has brought the text into the new millennium with insight and humor and dramatic intensity carried out to near perfection by Green and his magnificent cast. This isn’t disrespectful satire or parody. It creates a new look for “The Seagull” that will be a revelation to Chekhov fans and haters alike.
“Bird” runs through August 30 at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30, Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $49. Call 773 871 3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org.
The show gets a rating of 4 stars. July 2015
Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!!
Want to read more reviews? Go to TheaterinChicago