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Is "Stupid...Bird," a Smart Theater Option?

Stan Barouh

Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck has been to see the latest play at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. You can see the full title here.

It's up until August 17.

The Rousuck Review: "Stupid...Bird." 

Let’s get this out of the way first – there’s an expletive smack-dab in the middle of this play’s three-word title: “Stupid F…ing Bird.” But this is far from a stupid f…ing play. 

To the contrary, it’s an irreverent homage to one of the greatest masterpieces of dramatic literature: Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Or, in playwright Aaron Posner’s words, it’s “a metatheatrical riff” that is “sort of adapted from ‘The Seagull.’”

And it’s smart and funny and very deserving of the sparkling second run that it’s getting at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington. That’s where it made its award-winning world premiere a year ago.

In “The Seagull,” the character of Konstantin is writing a play that he hopes will explore new forms. Aaron Posner’s play is his attempt at a work that is a new form and is being created right in front of us, with our participation.

The result is a delightfully self-reflexive play in which the characters acknowledge that they’re performing a play. As Konstantin’s modern counterpart tells the audience – quote – “of course I know I’m in a play, I’m right here and you’re right there, and since you can see and hear me let’s just assume I can see and hear you, too.” Posner’s themes echo Chekhov’s: The difficulties, complications and futility of love, art and family, and the frustration of yearning.

The seven characters’ express their seemingly bottomless yearnings while seated in a row facing the audience. These are just some of the seven characters’ seemingly bottomless yearnings, overtly expressed while the actors sit in a row facing the audience.

You’ll recognize most of the plot from Chekhov: Con, an aspiring playwright, has grown up in the shadow of his famous actress mother. His mother is dating a famous novelist called Trig. Con is in love with an aspiring actress named Nina. But Nina falls in love with Trig. Meanwhile, Mash -- Posner’s update of Chekhov’s Masha – is in love with Con, although Con’s old friend Dev is hopelessly in love with Mash.

Well, Kimberly Gilbert’s melancholy Mash sort of sums it: “To love with all your heart and know that it will never, ever be returned. And to be loved by someone else whose love you cannot possibly return.” 

The play includes original music. Actors sit at an upright piano at the back of the stage and accompany or underscore the proceedings. And, there are several songs, composed by James Sugg with lyrics by the playwright.

At the start – or near the start – of each of the play’s three acts, Mash sings a song and accompanies herself on the ukulele.

When the audience applauds at the end of the first, dour rendition, Mash looks at us and says: “Shut up.” This is not a happy woman.

But no one is happy – at least not for long -- in “The Seagull,” and the same is true here, although Posner indulges in several happier tweaks to Chekhov’s ending.

The writing, acting and Howard Shalwitz’s direction are all sharp. Kate Eastwood Norris delivers a powerfully charged speech when her character catches Cody Nickell’s Trig with Nina. Later, Brad Koed’s gloomy, hyper-serious Con goes on a brief, but darkly amusing, eleventh hour search for catharsis.

The play’s style is varied -- as it should be in a work exploring new forms. (Although in truth, none of the variations is especially new.) The characters each have direct-address monologs. And at one point between scenes, there’s a lovely, unexpectedly exuberant, little Russian musical-chairs dance.

Misha Kachman has designed sets that also reflect different styles. 
The sets for Acts One and Three are fairly abstract. The stage is opened up to the back wall, which features large stenciled portraits of Chekhov. The second-act set is a realistic kitchen in the tried-and-true tradition of American kitchen-sink dramas. 

In the end, does Posner’s play break any new ground? Maybe not, but it does offer a fresh, contemporary take on a classic, and it makes a stab at trying to do what it is about – including expressing the frustrations of a playwright trying to break new ground.

The play got its start four years ago when Posner was directing another playwright’s work at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Posner admits that when he came up with the title, he doubted it’d be produced anywhere but the ever-adventuresome Woolly Mammoth. A character in the play voices a similar sentiment. (This is a play in which not only the characters’ frustrations – but also the playwright’s – are put out there for all to see.)

Woolly Mammoth stuck by Posner’s play, developed it, produced its premiere last summer, and has brought it back now for a return engagement.

The entire original cast has returned with it. I’m not surprised that they were eager for another go at this rich, funny play about the theater. Furthermore,  “Stupid F…ing Bird” is currently also running in Los Angeles, about to open in Chicago, and a dozen other productions will be staged around the country in the coming season.

So, this bird has taken flight. If you want to see it where it got its wings – 
starring the people who taught it to fly – you can catch this witty, rare bird at Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

-- J. Wynn Rousuck

Jamyla Krempel is WYPR's digital content director and the executive producer of Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey. She collaborates with reporters, program and podcast hosts to create content for WYPR’s online platforms.