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Theatre in Review: Stupid F---ing Bird (Pearl Theatre Company)

Marianna McClellan, Christopher Sears. Photo: Russ Rowland

"Black is slimming," says Mash, dismissively, at the beginning of Aaron Posner's new play, which is "sort of" adapted from The Seagull. Mash is the equivalent of Chekhov's Masha, and yes, she does get around to admitting that she is in mourning for her life. Still, it's a good indication of the working method of a playwright who honors a classic by way of turning it upside down. Often, when watching a high-concept production of a canonical work in which the author's intent appears to be the last thing on anyone's mind, I've wondered why the artists simply didn't put on a new play. Posner has done just that: Instead of imposing his ideas on Chekhov's text, he has started from scratch, imagining what The Seagull would be like if it were written today. The result is instructive: It appears that you can fiddle with the tonalities of The Seagull all you want, but Chekhov's penetrating insights into his beleaguered summer country folk are as fresh today as the day they were written.

Most of the original Seagull gang is still here. Con, the young writer who believes his career depends on creating "new forms," is on hand, penning a plotless, characterless avant-garde theatre piece that gets called off in mid-performance, thanks to the scathing comments of his mother. She would be Emma Arkadina, star of stage and screen and a hard-bitten survivor of the worst that show business could throw at her. (Recalling her first husband, an actor named Dixon McCready -- "Rhymes with seedy," she ruefully notes -- who got her pregnant at the age of 18, she says, "'Sexual harassment that just worked out,' we called it. I thought that was so funny and charming at the time.") Emma is sleeping with the world-famous writer Doyle Trigorin, who views his own success with a cold, detached eye. (Asked what it is like to be a "famous genius," he says, thoughtfully, "It's not something you feel.") And Trigorin is still bent on seducing Nina, the aspiring young actress whom Con loves unrequitedly, and whose hopes of artistic success and acclaim end in mediocrity and psychological disintegration. Mash, a cook, pines unrequitedly after Con when not composing comically downbeat ditties to play on her ukelele. ("You're born and then you live and then you die/You never get to know the reason why/You breathe and then you don't, you've just begun/You're hot, you rot, and then you're done/And where's the part of this that's fun?") Also hanging around is Dev, a professional tutor who would dearly love to teach Mash a thing or two. And then there's Sorn, Emma's older brother, who philosophizes while helping himself to a late-night cocktail; who wanders around a stage populated with tormented souls with his headset on, listening to opera; and who suddenly cries out, in the middle of a gathering, that he is dying -- a remark that everyone pretty much ignores.

All of these characters have been retrofitted for the 21st century, where they inhabit a distinctly postmodern landscape. Everyone is conscious of being a character in a play, and they break the fourth wall frequently. Con asks for advice about how best to get Nina's attention -- at the performance I attended, among many other suggestions, someone pointed out that he could kill himself, a jarring moment that Christopher Sears, who plays Con, handled with aplomb. Later, a hand mic is passed around as each of them says what he or she really wants. And the entire first half is played in front of a series of rolling flats that spell out the name of the play.

And without any evident strain, Posner finds a modern expression for a great many of Chekhov's devices and ideas. Con's presentation is billed as "a site-specific performance event." ("Do we have to wear masks or something?" wonders Dev, in a swipe at immersive theatre pieces like Sleep No More.) More than usually, Con's piece is a critique of his mother's career. ("Nothing stale/Not a retread or a rehash/Nothing tarnished or trashed/By hacks or the hackneyed/By starlets and star turns.") After the performance is cut off, Trigorin, coming on to Nina, says that, in her costume, she looks like a young Faye Dunaway. "She doesn't know who that is," murmurs Emma. Later, when Nina is an actress of no special accomplishment, we learn that she has appeared in several poorish films and television series. Trigorin's books have ever-so-precious titles like The Laughing Dog Laughed and The Stark Naked Heart. Mash, taking scathing note of his literary output, describes it as "bleakness, all tied up with a pretty pink bow." We recognize these characters as old friends even as we notice how well their new clothes become them.

And, under Davis McCallum's direction, the flow of events, from farce to heartbreak to resignation and back again, is entirely natural, with two or more tones taking up residence on stage at the same moment. Mash, emotionally crushed, falls into Sorn's arms just as he is trying to pop a mint in his mouth, leading him into all sorts of discreet contortions. Emma, recalling how when Con, as a little boy, become overwrought, she'd say, "You don't want to kill Mommy, do you?" -- accompanying that unforgivable remark with a series of hand gestures representative of a mother dying from emotional exhaustion. Con, furious at Nina for not loving him, launches into a tirade that makes the doors behind them rattle with his fury.

In a company without a weak link, three performances stand out. Sears makes Con into a kind of human volcano, spitting out wave upon wave of anger, woundedness, and killingly mordant observations. Speaking of Emma, he says, "Dye and Botox can't make me go away. The math of me. I mean, she had me at 19, not nine. So if I'm this old, she must be that old, and she kinda hates me for that." There's a real terror inside his moments of rage, as if even he is afraid of what he is unleashing. Bianca Amato's Emma is the most take-charge Arkadina I've ever seen: Catching Trigorin in a clinch with Nina, she dispatches the girl with a barely controlled fury, then, turning to her lover, dispenses with any tricks or emotional blackmail. She forcefully, relentlessly lays out her case that only she really knows him, certainly not some insipid girl; she hammers home her arguments like a district attorney, yet she knows her man and his weaknesses: By the end of the speech, he is in her arms, preparing to take her on the kitchen table. Joey Parsons finds delicious amusement in Mash's deadly appreciation of the fools around her -- yet the actress can turn on a dime, plunging us into her anguish. (In despair over her love for Con, she wonders, "What kind of a God needs a laugh that bad?")

There's also fine work from Marianna McClellan, whose Nina is rather more seductive than the norm; she is also touchingly broken in her final appearance, when all of her dreams of love and success have been drained away. Erik Lochtefeld's Trigorin is by turns charming, selfish, weak, and predatory, as needed; remarkably, he blends these traits into a coherent characterization. Joe Paulik's Dev maintains a sunny fa├žade, no matter how mistreated or taken for granted he may be. Dan Daily's Sorn is a bleakly comic figure, possessed of an almost Beckettian despair. ("I want to be 27 again," he says. "I think I'm ready to do my late 20s really well now.")

Sandra Goldmark's set design features the aforementioned scenic flats, a small raised deck with a working kitchen, and a final scene featuring a table and a few chairs on an otherwise bare stage. Several scenes are backed by a black-and-white photorealistic image of the lake where the country house resides and the upstage area is dotted with dozens of images of Chekhov. Amy Clark's contemporary clothing (especially a stunning kimono for Emma), Mike Inwood's subtle lighting, and Mikhail Fiksel's sound design all contribute solidly to the extra-theatrical atmosphere.

At one point, Nina recalls one of Sorin's stories, remembering how the young heroine who, against the odds, builds her inner strength with something called The Hope Dance. Just about everybody in Posner's play declines to take part in anything like that, but, when the moment comes for each of them to reveal what his or her future will be, we learn that Posner has been surprisingly kind to many of the characters -- far more than Chekhov was. At least, hope hasn't been banished altogether. It's another example of how a playwright takes borrowed materials and deftly makes them his own. -- David Barbour

(1 April 2016)

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