Playwright Aaron Posner gets something that few American directors and actors do: Anton Chekhov’s plays are funny.Not smiling-wryly funny, or inwardly-groaning funny, but actually-get-you-to-burst-out-laughing funny. They’re chock full of comic situations, oddball characters, and ridiculous turns of events; the problem is that most American interpretations of Chekhov, seduced by the psychological depth in his plays, treat them as melodrama rather than satire (a relatively recent exception to that tendency was PICT’s 2012 production of Three Sisters, directed by Harriet Power). But Posner isn’t fooled by all that theatrical realism, and in Stupid Fucking Bird, his “sort of” adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull,he not only translates Chekhov’s comedy into an idiom we can chuckle at, but also threads a commentary on the relationship of artists and their audience that highlights the gulf between the meaning artists seek to convey and the messages audiences receive.
Posner’s theatrical world roughly echoes Chekhov’s in terms of plot and characters (although most of the character names have been de-Russified), but onto that he has layered a metatheatrical conceit: the actor/characters regularly address the audience directly, as people who are aware that they are characters in a play. This fourth-wall breaking brings a giddy energy to the play, especially because it’s rather haphazardly deployed. At some points it seems as if we are being addressed by the characters themselves – like when the suicidal playwright Con (Chris Cattell) encourages us to imagine a new kind of theater, one completely unlike the play we are watching right now – but at other points it feels like we are being addressed by the actors – as when Matt Henderson tells Cattell that he shouldn’t expect the audience to respond to a direct request for advice, because “they know you’re fictional,” and Cattell looks at us desperately and pleads “If only I had some friend in the audience.”
Stupid Fucking Bird has a lot of complicated moving parts, sliding as it does between and among Chekhov’sThe Seagull,Posner’s adaptation of The Seagull as Stupid Fucking Bird, the play-within-the-play called Here We Are that Con presents to his mother Emma (Maura Underwood) and her lover Trigorin (Stefan Lingenfelter), and Posner’s many and varied metatheatrical asides. Director Vince Ventura has added his own layer of complexity in the form of choreographed moments of reflection and in sound and lighting cues that pull the play out of the real and into a heightened theatricality during some of its more “meta” moments and that look and feel very much like the kind of thing Con would stage as part of his own attempts to remake the art of theater (more metatheatricality!)
This is some of the strongest work I’ve seen 12 Peers Theater produce to date. Cattell grounds the production with his nuanced characterization of Con; the characters who orbit around his absurd existential despair include Sarah Chelli’s ebullient – and later bat-shit crazy – Nina, Underwood’s regally narcissistic Emma Arkadina, Henderson’s neurotic sadsack Dev, and Sara Ashley Fisher’s gothically depressed Mash. Lingenfelter is likeable (perhaps rather too much so) as the genius writer Trigorin, and David Maslow plays a baffled and existentially-challenged Dr. Sorn.