Flight of the post-modern seagull
Aaron Posner’s “Stupid F%#*ing Bird” is taking flight Urbanite Theatre. Well, actually, it’s been shot. The bird is probably a seagull; the second adjective is unprintable; the play is a post-modern update of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” For purposes of print, let’s clip the title to “Stupid Bird.” The playwright is anything but stupid.
Posner has a great ear for the music of contemporary speech. His scene construction is sharp and specific. And he’s stuffed the play with misdirection. When you think it’s going right, he takes a sharp left. His rhythms never get predictable — even when he’s adapting a 120-year-old play.
The recipe is “The Seagull” boiled down. (Sound delicious, eh?) Posner breaks up long speeches into snappy back-and-forth. The story’s basically the same, but he cuts the fat and consolidates a few characters. It’d be a small bowl of Seagull soup — except for the big post-modern bowl. Here’s a spoonful of the story:
After a happy tune about unhappy life, the play starts like Chekhov’s original. We get a bit of experimental theater — in this case, “Here We Are,” a “site-specific performance-event” created by Con (Joe McGranaghan), a punk playwright who stages the work in his mom’s backyard. The piece stars Nina (Cindy De La Cruz), his flighty neighbor and girlfriend. The audience is comprised of Con’s mother, Emma, (Tess Hogan) an aging narcissistic movie star; her lover, Trig (Harry Lipstein), a smarmy, best-selling, 40-something novelist; Mash (Summer Dawn Wallace), a uke-strumming ball of negativity who, like Johnny Cash, dresses in black; and Dev (Zak Wilson) who always sees the bright side of life, but can’t get on Mash’s sweet side.
Emma breaks up the play. “Real” life drama ensues: a stew of unrequited love, failed artistic ambition and social convention. Mash is carrying a torch for Con. Nina rejects Con for Trig. Con deals with it by shooting a seagull and giving it to her in a bag. (Flowers would’ve been nicer.) Nina rejects the young playwright. While he’s adept at plugging seabirds, Con’s aim is less true when he tries to put a bullet through his own head — and his first suicide attempt fails. Dr. Sorn (Dan Higgs) considers mortality and authenticity while knocking on heaven’s door. What ultimately happens?
Well, here it gets tricky.
Post-modern art wears its artifice on its sleeve. A post-modern play shouts, “I am a play.” “Stupid Bird” definitely fits the bill. Characters break the fourth wall, talk about the play they’re in, quiz the audience, and sometimes climb into the audience. When this kind of thing is played for laughs, it’s satire. If nobody’s laughing, it’s probably post-modernism. And what’s really happening is up for grabs.
But maybe it’s not post-modernism.
Just to complicate matters, the first act’s laughs are fast and furious. The play initially plays like satire — a mockery of post-modern experiments, never Chekhov. Emma calls Con’s performance “pretentious drivel,” and it is. The stupid-non-play-within-a-play feels like a caricature of Posner’s play; Con feels like a stand-in for Posner. It’s all very funny, at first. But the laughs thin out, and the issues thicken. Posner lets you know the stakes are high. For the fake playwright in the real play. Or the real playwright writing the fake play …
Director Vincent Carlson-Brown never misses a beat with the fake-outs and swerves of Posner's post-modern thrill ride. Seven great actors laugh, scream and get under your skin on the loop-de-loops and switchback turns. Set-designer John C. Reynolds gives you some chairs, a platform, a swing and, occasionally, a kitchen; if his set was any more minimal it’d disappear, which I think is the point. Becki Leigh’s costumes don’t feel like costumes, just the clothes these characters would wear. Again, that’s the whole point.
“Stupid Bird” is a fun ride, but it’s also a soapbox. Con feels like Posner’s mouthpiece, and his rants feel like stand-up comedy. Con gripes about the torture of creating something new, the hunger of contemporary audiences for spectacle, the incredibly shrinking cast of modern theater and the cost-saving trick of ripping off copyright-free works of dead playwrights (with a nod to a big painting of a seagull at the back of the stage).
Funny stuff. If Lewis Black was an angry playwright, he’d sound like this character. But something tells me the playwright speaking through him isn’t just joking.
At one point, Con shouts, “Why new forms? How about this for an idea: Just do the old forms BETTER!”
That’s occurred to me, too.
But Posner has it both ways in “Stupid Bird.” He takes a classic work and creates the best possible contemporary adaptation he can. He wraps up that adaptation with the cleverest post-modern gallimaufry imaginable. Where could you possibly go from here?
I have no idea.
But it’s a great f%#*ing play.
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