By Aaron Posner, based on The Seagull by Anton Chekhov; Directed by Isaac Byrne
Produced by Theatre 4the People
Off Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 10.1.23
Matthew Corozine Studio Theatre, 357 West 36th Street
by Ed Malin on 9.15.23
Melissa Mattos and Conor M. Hamill in Stupid Fucking Bird. Photo by Joshua Rose.
BOTTOM LINE: Imagine Chekhov's classic, but with contemporary people who are confused about art and life.
Aaron Posner’s take on Anton Chekhov’s heavy-handed symposium on art (meaning The Seagull, hence Posner's title, Stupid Fucking Bird) is for the rest of us. If you, like the artists and their friends in the cast, sometimes ask aloud “What are we doing here? Is this art any good?” then you will enjoy this show. Veteran director Isaac Byrne and an excellent cast bring a non-stop, refreshing conversation to life. Between scenes, cast members will take a guitar or trumpet off a rack on the wall and you will hear the lively music of James Sugg, with musical direction from Anna Stefanic, on songs with lyrics such as “Life Is Disappointing.” The performers occasionally break the fourth wall, asking us how they can fix their lives, so you can fully contribute to the performance. Indeed, the first line is “The play will begin when someone says 'Start the fucking play!'”
Mash (Haley Rice) wears black, plays the ukulele, and is a bit depressed. The good-natured Dev (Trevor Markanovic) competes with Mash to prove that he is more miserable. Dev loves Mash, but she is gaga for experimental theater guy Conrad (Conor M. Hamill). “Connie,” who wears colorful, “artiste” outfits in public and melancholy pajamas at home, may be a little out of touch with reality, yet he can’t stop praising aspiring actress Nina (Melissa Mattos). At Connie’s mother’s estate, the family gathers to watch Nina, wearing a lot of feathers (exquisitely costumed by Katja Andreiev) do a performance art bit that is presented as bewilderingly bad. Still, the audience reaction crushes Nina, which in turn hurts Connie, for whom Nina is sanity. Out of fear of losing Nina, Connie shoots a seagull, which he calls a "stupid fucking bird." He hints at hurting himself, in solidarity with Chekhov’s text. No one is on steady ground here, getting their gowns caught in the door when they try to storm offstage, but it’s okay to be flawed.
You might think Connie lacks the will to live because of the stature of his mother, the famous actress Emma (Nya Bowman). In a brilliant monologue, Emma describes her showbiz marriage to Connie’s father as “sexual harassment that just worked out, that’s all” and dares anyone to judge her. Emma’s current lover is Trigorin (Jey Kennedy), an older writer of great reputation who comes off here as a playboy. Trigorin's chill mood comes from the hundred-year test: will anything we say/do/write matter in 100 years? (Hasn’t it been a hundred years since Chekhov?) Nina flirts with Trigorin, Mash pines for Connie, and Dev still loves Mash. Connie's uncle Sorn (Timothy Wagner), a physician and the only level-headed non-artist in the play, confirms he is lonely but can live with it. And as expected, Connie shoots himself and survives.
In Act Two, Connie, head bandaged, tells the audience “The only thing worse than trying to kill yourself and failing is having to talk to your mother after trying to kill yourself and failing.” Is Connie's frustration with his coddled life his mother's fault? Who really feels good about their life? Not, apparently, Dr. Sorn, who uses that as motivation to heal others. Sorn discards normal benchmarks for prosperity as he muses “What the hell happened to my 40s? I mean, I know I was there, I can show you my tax returns. But where the hell was I? I’m really ready to do my late 20s right.” Mash sings twisted love songs and contemplates marrying Dev. Trigorin seduces Nina with Hamlet’s words “’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished,” and despite Emma’s warning to Trigorin that he is chasing a vision in a funhouse mirror, he runs away with Nina. I suppose the main contrast with Chekhov is that the art these characters make is not intended to change the world, and they're still unhappy.
Four years later in Act Three, the characters reunite for Sorn's 70th birthday. Dev and Mash are married with three children. Nina and Trigorin lost their baby and broke up, so Trigorin is again living with Emma. Nina got her big break in crime shows, and still doubts if she is talented. And Connie's play about his family drama, Stupid Fucking Bird, is now playing in the city. Can we still wish for art to change people? Why can some people, such as Mash and Dev, change, while others, like Connie and Nina, cannot?
This respected meta-play is worth seeing. I admire the down-to-earth direction, which leaves a lot of room to explore different types of human relationships. The cast all work hard, but the mother and son fights between Nya Bowman's Emma and Conor M. Hamill's Conrad, and the co-dependent quarrels of Conrad and Melissa Mattos's Nina, are especially memorable. Jey Kennedy as Trigorin has that chill smugness found in the rich and respected, yet delivers some profound insights, as does Timothy Wagner as Sorn.
(Stupid Fucking Bird plays at the Matthew Corozine Studio Theatre, 357 West 36th Street, from September 15 through October 1, 2023. The running time is 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8; Sundays at 3. Tickets are $30. Friday 9/22 and 9/29, and Sunday 9/17 and 9/24, will be Pay What You Can at the door. For tickets and more information visit theatre4thepeople.org.)
Stupid Fucking Bird is by Aaron Posner, based on The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Isaac Byrne. Lighting and Scenic Design by Joshua Rose. Costume Design by Katja Andreiev. Intimacy and Movement Choreography by Kat Donachie. Assistant Director is Susan Bowyer. Associate Costume Designer is Tricia Bastian. Original Music by James Sugg. Musical Director is Anna Stefanic. Production Stage Manager is Ashley Waldron.
The cast is Conor M. Hamill, Melissa Mattos, Nya Bowman, Jey Kennedy, Timothy Wagner, Haley Rice, and Trevor Markanovic.