The bird, the bird, the damned dead bird. In his great shambling masterwork The Seagull Anton Chekhov never metaphor he didnâ€™t like, but just what the hell does this piece of bagged and bleeding flesh mean, anyway? There it flops, shot out of the air, presented as a desperate gift, and maybe it stands for Nina and maybe it doesnâ€™t, but even if it does, what does it mean about Nina? Theater people and audiences have been arguing about it, or just plain scratching their heads over it, for 120 years.
In Stupid Fucking Bird, Aaron Posnerâ€™s prickly, passionate, speech-spouting, erratic, profanity-laced, and sometimes very funny contemporary riff on The Seagull that opened Friday night at Portland Center Stage, it comes out to a great big nothing: a metaphor that just lies there, heavy and inarticulate. It confuses even Connie (Konstantin in the original), the lovelorn radical-symbolist playwright who drops it at his former loverâ€™s feet like a cat presenting a rat to its person, who understandably feels less than flattered by the offering. Like the obsessions of the playâ€™s morose characters, itâ€™s a big meaningless blob that nevertheless gets in the way of everything.
Thatâ€™s sort of the way things go in Chekhovâ€™s universe of missed connections, crossed purposes and obstinate illusions among the fading gentry: ah, life, life! And still, Chekhov thought of his plays as mainly comedies. Konstantin Stanislavski, his most famous and successful director, insisted they were mostly tragedies. Posner thinks of The Seagull, at least, as a handy launching pad for momentum-busting rants on the state of the theater, the hopelessness of love, the lovelessness of hope, and other scraps from the Chekhov notebook.
Oddly, all three are right. When The Seagull premiered in 1896 it was an unmitigated disaster. Only when Stanislavski restaged it at the new Moscow Art Theatre in 1898, teasing out a fusion of the playâ€™s tragic and comic elements by following his then-radical theories of naturalistic action, did it become a sensation, the first of Chekhovâ€™s four great classics brought to life by Stanislavski. Following in relatively short order were Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters (co-directed by Vladimir Nemirovich-Denchenko), and The Cherry Orchard.
Stupid Fucking Bird isnâ€™t a translation and itâ€™s not quite an adaptation, either, although it sticks pretty closely to the main lines of The Seagullâ€™s plot. With several smaller roles eliminated and a few folded together, itâ€™s more a variation and elaboration on themes. And this production, directed by Howard Shalwitz, elaborates beautifully, with a sparkling cast that seems to understand thoroughly what Posnerâ€™s aiming for. Itâ€™s a co-production with Syracuse Stage, where itâ€™s already played, and some of the actors are also holdovers from the original Woolly Mammoth Theatre production in Washington, D.C., in 2013, so Portland audiences are getting the advantage of seeing a company of actors thatâ€™s fully attuned to one another. Even the playâ€™s many deliberate bumps are handled smoothly.
To recapitulate, in case itâ€™s been a while since you last saw the flapping bird: Conrad (Ian Holcomb) is an outspoken theatrical idealist, determined to create a new form of theater thatâ€™s like life itself. Heâ€™s the son of Emma Arkadina (Kate Eastwood Norris), the famous actress, whose style of elaborated, well-crafted, and defiantly un-lifelike theater Conrad detests; and heâ€™s besotted with Nina (Katie deBuys), an aspiring actress who stars in his new theatrical experience, a painfully awkward eruption that bores his self-infatuated mother to sarcasm. Emmaâ€™s boyfriend is the famous writer Trigorin (Cody Nickell), whoâ€™s something of a sly voluptuary, and who develops a deep thirst for Nina, who in turn is in thrall to his talent and fame. Mash (Kimberley Gilbert), the family cook, pines away punkishly for Connie, who could care less. Connieâ€™s best friend, the nebbish tutor Dev (Darius Pierce), is similarly head over heels forÂ Mash, whose affections are otherwise engaged. Emmaâ€™s doctor brother, Eugene (Charles Leggett), meanwhile, flutters around the estate like a distracted spirit, a benevolent presence with a deep secret of his own. A gun goes off, a couple runs off, time goes by, some things shift, some things donâ€™t.
Taking his cues from Conradâ€™s intense desire to revolutionize the theater, Posner plays around a lot with an almost Brechtian idea of theatrical duality. His characters and performers are both inside the play and outside of the action, commenting on it, observing themselves, coaxing and arguing with the audience, pushing the action out of the heart and into the head, going off on seeming tangents that nevertheless are rooted in the compulsions of the original play. This is especially true with Connieâ€™s fevered and oddly inarticulate speeches about the new theater and the new world: Heâ€™s filled with theory, and with the haunting knowledge that as much as he despises the old, there might not actually be anything new. Posner lets â€™er rip, mounting the holy theatrical pulpit with Conrad, rat-a-tat-tatting staccato arias on the nature and meaning and responsibilities of the theater as an embodiment of life.
The radical theater of Stanislavski is now the doddering old predictable status quo, and Stupid Fucking Bird rebels against it even as it resorts to it. A strong dose of theatrical narcissism glows through the revolution, as if the audience were as enthralled by questions of form and presentational philosophy as the performers are. The characters blithely shatter fourth walls in an attempt, they claim, to be more â€śrealâ€ť than theater, in the process underlining how awkward and artificial the attempt is. (For tips, they should watch standup comedy now and again.)
To make things even more meta, you get the feeling that Posner knows his playâ€™s attempts to be â€śrealâ€ť are awkward, and is courting the awkwardness. Heâ€™s playing around with the idea, a loop on a loop on a loop: Itâ€™s all artifice, and when the action gets clunky, thatâ€™s when Conradâ€™s revolution is happening, although itâ€™s not really a revolution because itâ€™s all been done before, and we all know that, especially Conrad. Thatâ€™s part of the point. If his speechifying makes us squirm, itâ€™s worked.
As he was writing The Seagull, Chekhov famously wrote about his intentions in a letter to a friend: â€śItâ€™s a comedy, there are three womenâ€™s parts, six menâ€™s, four acts, landscapes (view over a lake); a great deal of conversation about literature, little action, tons of love.â€ť
The love is a blessing and a curse, and it sprawls all over bothÂ plays, often misplaced, rarely landing at its intended target, sometimes sneaking in where itâ€™s least expected. It comes in all forms, from the amused self-love of Emma and Trigorin to the yearning love of Nina to the pained love of Mash and the constant love of Dev and the scattered love of Eugene and the bleak hopeless love of Conrad. Itâ€™s a renegade force, willful and untamed and irresistible, a fire you canâ€™t keep from playing with. And maybe thatâ€™s the tragical-comical point. Stupid Fucking Bird sharpens the comedy and provocations of The Seagull, perhaps at the expense of its deeper melancholy and spiritual unrest, and yet this show has many moments of genuinely touching emotion.
Among the furious and feckless action, a counterbalancing gentleness exists that is an essential element of that elusive thing we call Chekhovian. Among this highly talented and deeply admirable cast, I find it most tellingly in Leggettâ€™s Eugene, a soul at once detached and almost supernally connected; in Gilbertâ€™s Mash, a character both mordantly funny and heartbreakingly vulnerable; and in Pierceâ€™s Dev, who radiates an utterly uncloying sweetness. Pierce has long been one of Portlandâ€™s finest actors, and this solid, grounded, radiating turn is surely one of his finest performances. There is a moment in the play when Mash begins to beat with fury and frustration on Eugeneâ€™s chest, and then falls forward into him, and he embraces her, and she sobs: new theater or old, itâ€™s magic.
This is Portland Center Stageâ€™s second straight season with a contemporary riff on Chekhov, after Christopher Durangâ€™s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike last year. That one was a little more cuddly, a little more played for laughs, a little more purely entertaining, although it also dropped into some dark places. Posnerâ€™s play is more strenuous, more spiky, more eager to wrestle with the knotty ideas of its modelâ€”a little less commercial, maybe, a little thornier, but also more invigorating. Stupid Fucking Bird is a play you can feel good about arguing with. Please do.
Stupid Fucking Bird continues through March 27 on the main stage at Portland Center Stage. Ticket and schedule information here.