Nina (Martha Brigham) and Conrad (Adam Magill) prepare to present a play for family and friends in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Stupid Fucking Bird by Aaron Posner. Below: An Act 2 fast forward takes us four years ahead into the lives of characters played by (from left) Joseph Estlack, El Beh, Charles Shaw Robinson, Carrie Paff and Johnny Moreno. Photos by Jessica Palopoli
In Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, an energizing riff on Chekhov’s The Seagull, a playwright laments that what he’s written is just another play where nothing real happens. You can’t really say the same thing about Posner’s play.
Bird doesn’t change the world, as the fictional playwright at one point says that theater should aim to do, but it does rattle the theatrical cage and clears away some musty clouds that hover over business as usual. It’s irreverent, gutsy, funny and even moving – everything you want Chekhov to be but so rarely find in his productions. Posner has his characters refer to what he’s doing as a “deconstruction” and a “rip-off” of Chekhov, but what he’s really doing is finding the essential heart of the original and providing new-and-improved access for a contemporary audience. In interviews, Posner repeatedly refers to Chekhov’s work being a “playground” that appeals to him, and that feels just right. Different rides – a slide, a swing, a merry-go-ground – providing different sensations but all immersive and contributing to an overall experience.
On the set of the Playhouse’s Bird there’s not one but two swings: one from a pier over a lake and one a more traditional push or pump variety. We’re at the lake house of a famous movie/stage actress, the ideal playground for the lovelorn, which pretty much everyone is here.
Posner follows the Chekhov blueprint like someone who knows and loves his Chekhov but is ready to do his own thing. He gathers seven people, some related by blood, some by choice and others by longing. Emma (Carrie Paff) is the vain star, and Trig (Johnny Moreno) is the world-famous writer who now shares her bed. Emma’s son is the tortured Conrad (Adam Magill), who is deeply, painfully in love with his lovely neighbor, Nina (Martha Brigham, a radiant blend of Julia Roberts and Lili Taylor both in looks and talent). Nina does not return his affections, but she does get swept up into the celebrity and literary genius of Trig, thus compounding Conrad’s misery.
The all-in-black Mash (El Beh) has been pining for Conrad for years, but he’s too caught up in Nina to notice, so Mash works out her longings with sad songs played on the ukulele. Dev (an endearingly understated Joseph Estlack) loves Mash and lets her know it, but he’s not the dramatic sort. He doesn’t moon and swoon and self-flagellate (he mishears that word as “self-flatulate” and wonders how that even works). Unlike the other divas who surround him, he’s a grounded, funny guy. He’s aware he comes across as sort of a boob, but the advantage to that is people underestimating just how much you notice going on around you. There’s another person on the periphery of the drama, Emma’s doctor brother Sorn (Charles Shaw Robinson), a man who plays a mean clarinet, longs for a monthlong hug (from whom remains a mystery) and reviles his chosen profession: “All those sick people!”
Once all of this is set up, Posner wastes no time bashing through the fourth wall, allowing his characters to share with the audience that they are well aware they are in a play and that they are watching the audience almost as much as the audience is watching them. From that point on, the vibe in the theater changes. The artificiality is acknowledged and toyed with, and that suddenly, somewhat mysteriously makes the characters and their situations more real and more interesting. While Conrad at first bemoans the state of theater (“the one we’re doing this play in seems all right”) and how it’s essentially boring and not enlarging people’s minds or hearts and so we need new, new, new forms. There’s a petulant, whiny tone to some of this, but by play’s end (which takes us four years into the future), it’s not new forms he seeks but doing the traditional thing better. After all, he reasons, certain elements like protagonist, antagonist, climax, denouement and catharsis have been around for thousands of years for a reason.
Is Posner doing the traditional thing better? Yes. With the help of director Susi Damilano and her exceptional cast, he pushes us to think about what we’re experiencing and then challenges us to truly feel what we’re experiencing. He allows each character to be more interesting than we might have imagined, and though Act 2 feels less successful than the first and finding an ending proves elusive, he takes us to a place that feels more alive, more thoughtful and, ultimately, more soulful than we might be used to going. That’s pretty f##king amazing.
I talked to Stupid Fucking Bird playwright Aaron Posner for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the interview here.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird continues through May 2 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.