If Stray Cat Theatre’s new production of Stupid Fucking Bird wasn’t so thrilling to behold, one might entertain oneself trying to figure out where Aaron Posner’s story ends, and where Chekhov’s The Seagull, to which it (sort of) pays homage, begins. Or perhaps to figure out how many plays-within-a-play this seriocomic beauty comprises. I lost count, mostly because I was distracted by a stage full of fine performances and some stunning commentary about what’s wrong with theater and with the world.
Here’s a caveat: One needn’t understand or appreciate Anton Chekhov’s writing, or especially love The Seagull (does anyone?), to be entertained by Posner’s play. It is, by the playwright’s own admission, “sort of adapted” from the famous 19th-century drama. Like the Chekhov play — like all Russian literature! — Bird has a gnarly thread of doom running through it. Rather than rolling his eyes at The Seagull’s Konstantin’s search for real love and true art, Posner uses it to launch a still-relevant peek at why we all presumably want these things.
The Chekhov play is about, among other things, the uncertain future and relevance of the theater. Posner’s homage also pays tribute to the original’s commentary on May-December romances and the hopelessness of love — all in a story lifted wholesale from The Seagull, with modern twists, natch: Con (Phillip Herrington) is a small-time playwright who’s nursing a lifelong love of childhood friend Nina (Courtney Weir), a wannabe actress with a crush on literary legend Trigorin (Wyatt Kent), who’s the boyfriend of Con’s mother, Emma (Shari Watts), a popular actress. Con’s best friend, Dev (Louis Farber), is engaged to Mash (Melody Knudson), who’s got a thing for Con, whose Uncle Sorn (Charles Sohn) is dying. While Conrad attempts to write and stage a meaningful play featuring Nina, she convinces Trigorin to run away with her.
Posner’s people are self-centered, small-minded, filled with pain and completely human. Over the course of more than two hours, Bird brings us their desperation and, eventually, the awareness that they know they’re characters in a play. Con, who lives without a fourth wall, occasionally speaks directly to his audience, asking for plot advice or berating us for assuming he doesn’t know we’re there.
The real joy here is in Posner’s own pretense-busting send-up of modern theater. Con has written not a play, but a “site-specific performance piece”; he refers to his mother’s acting career in quotes; he derides “the tiny, tepid, clever-y, clever-y clever-y little plays that are being produced by terrified theatres.” By writing the audience as an eighth character in his play, Posner makes us culpable in all that’s wrong with contemporary theater. It’s an insightful and hilarious device — one among many.
A stunning cast burnishes all these hammy, existential dilemmas and improv-busting devices. Watts dials back the diva writ large on Emma’s posturing, giving her some unexpected depth. Weir is best when offering comfort to Herrington’s quickly unraveling Con, and Sohn has a lovely eleventh-hour scene in which Sorn’s grumpy asides evolve into angry insight.
They’re an overall excellent cast, yet the play rests with Herrington. Storms pass over his face as he quietly registers every past hurt, each of the endless infractions he imagines he’s endured. His is the right combination of fierceness and emotional frailty, and his pages-long speech about everything that’s wrong with live theater today (a reference to Chekhov’s own early, unfulfilled career) is a stunner, made all the more riveting thanks to that earlier, gymnastic back-and-forth with the audience.
Director Ron May has created some stunning, stuck-in-my-mind stage imagery on Eric Beeck’s functional turntable set, which keeps the story front and center at all times. It remains there for only a few more performances, one of which you will want to see.
Stupid Fucking Bird continues through March 27 at the Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 1333 East Washington Street. Call 480-227-1766 or visit www.straycattheatre.org.