The longer it goes on, the more Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird takes dynamic and compelling flight at the Playhouse. Credit a great script, an impeccable cast and perceptive directing by Suzanne Withem. Note the real title. The Playhouse has softened it to Stupid F@#%ing Bird.
The play doesn’t seem to have much weight during the first act; mostly it lays the groundwork, while thoroughly establishing the characters, their relationships, their confusions, their hopes. Posner also makes clear a comic perspective of people who take themselves too seriously, akin to those in his source for the story, Chekhov’s The Seagull. These people don’t know that they are funny, but, by having the performers regularly break the fourth wall, Posner both amuses us and prods us to remember that theatre isn’t real life but it can really get close. This is further underscored by actual food being prepared, drunk, eaten and audience-shared.
Everything takes place in and around Emma Arkadina’s home where she is spending time with her lover famed author Doyle Trigorin, her grown son Conrad and her older brother Dr. Eugene Sorn. Also present are Conrad’s actress girlfriend Nina, his friend Dev and a young woman named Mash who has a crush on Conrad. Dev yearns for Mash. And Nina becomes attracted to Trigorin, considerably older than she.
Conrad hopes to become a successful writer and has written an experimental play to star Nina. He stages it for the group. Given that Emma is a successful actress, although past her prime, theatre is in the family blood. But love between mother and son is stressed in the extreme. And, when Conrad sees that he is losing his adored muse to his mother’s lover, he goes ballistic and shoots himself, after having already shot and killed a seagull. In the final part of the play, four years have passed and, as these people reassemble and reflect on changed lives, Conrad hasn’t matured.
That may not sound like a very complicated story, but the essence of what Posner has brilliantly created is a Chekhov-like exploration of people floundering, trying to find themselves and constantly getting lost. Whereas Chekhov wanted us to see these people as comic in their weaknesses and confusion, Posner puts more play into the play with deliberately funny lines and by having Conrad and constantly amusing Dev talk directly to the audience, asking for response, even moving around the seats and up the aisles. Moreover, Posner has many characters try to explain themselves directly to us non-fictional witnesses. By the time the second act gets underway, we are inextricably involved with these bewildered people, perhaps even having spoken to them.
Posner’s script stays full of expressive dialogue, especially in the second act. One early example is Trigorin’s attempt to explain what it means to live with fame.Later, there’s Emma’s musing on aging and on how the future will unfold for her and Trigorin. Several times the subject of seagulls comes up including the bird’s symbolism. Posner tries unusual devices, too, such as a rambling non-sequitur speech by Mash which resembles one by Lucky in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Another time he has Conrad and Nina trapped in an amazing cycle of verbal repetitions.
Beau Fisher astonishes with multi- dimensional talent as Conrad. He finds all the depth in the rich dialogue, conveying innocence, vulnerability, insecurity and immaturity. You may want to reach out to comfort him, should he come that near to you. As Dev, Raydell Cordell III breathes natural, constantly charming warmth. And Kevin Anderson’s Trigorin superbly gets across the man’s intelligence and thoughtful puzzlements. Alissa Hanish also impressively evokes Nina’s transition from being girl who doesn’t yet know who she is to one who knows too much.
Each of the other actors fits the characters with natural truth in an ensemble that feels like it’s been living and breathing together for decades. Credit director Withem for bringing that out. She has also fine-tuned the reactions and interactions which say more than what’s in their speeches. Watch, in particular, Nina and Trigorin tentatively reaching out to each other, not sure why or if.
Lindsay Pape came up with some very clever costuming, for example, Mash’s all-black, rather sorrowful initial outfit replaced by something gray as life gets better for her. Pape also created smart matching bedroom clothes for lovers Emma and Trigorin.
As Mash, Aanya Sagheer sings wonderfully in excellent songs created by James Sugg for the original production of this play. He also presumably wrote the quasi-Russian music being heard from time to time during these local performances. Among his credits, Sugg has created 17 original works including full-length musicals and received four Barrymore Awards for work as a sound designer and composer. There is nothing about him in the program book and, characteristically and sadly, nothing about the playwright.
Aaron Posner has also adapted Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and The Three Sisters, the former called Life Sucks and the latter No Sisters. And he re-worked Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice as District Merchants. Both Posner and Sugg have been active in Philadelphia’s theatre life.
At the opening night performance on the 13th, the house was not nearly as full as you would think and, after intermission, there were even a few more empty seats. Too bad. Those who left missed the phenomenal linked second and third acts. It’s possible that prior adult language alerts and the words’ actual use made some people uncomfortable. Indeed, the “f” word proliferates, just as it does in everyday speech and in movies now all the time. That’s the real world, where these characters and these performances impressively express the complexities of human nature and of truth.
Stupid F@#%ing Bird lives through Nov. 12, Howard Drew Theatre, Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St. Thurs.-Sat.: 7:30 p.m. Sun: 2 p.m. Tickets: $18 (students) or $24 plus.http://www.omahaplayhouse.com/