By John Quinn
“Stupid Fucking Bird” is a play by Aaron Posner. Wait. Does that mean this vulgar title is attached to a work by the author of the beautifully crafted “My Name is Asher Lev”? In a word, yes, which goes to show first impressions shouldn’t be lasting ones. While his two plays are totally different, they share Posner’s wit, introspection and powers of observation. Like “Asher Lev,” “Bird” is a testament of the unconventional artist whose wings are clipped by tradition. It’s currently soaring at The Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale.
Now for the back story. Russian playwright Anton Chekhov is one of the fathers of modern theater. In his four major plays, of which “The Seagull” was the first, he rebelled against the turgid rituals of melodrama and strived to create more realistic drama. His – ahem – “method” was shifting the focus from plot to character, forcing him to people his plays with deeper, more complex characters than his predecessors.
But Chekhov was writing for a culture that considered repressed emotions part of good manners. His characters don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. Their emotional “beats” are conveyed through “subtext” – innuendo, allusion, a wink and a nod. It resulted in a radical reassessment of what constitutes good narrative, one that has echoed down the halls of the performing arts.
That was then; this is now. “What he was doing then was radical and revolutionary and exciting,” Posner reasons. “Doing Chekhov a hundred years later is the opposite of that.”
Indeed, Chekhov’s rebellions against melodrama seem pretty melodramatic today, so much so they are ripe for parody. The program for “Stupid Fucking Bird” says that it’s “sort of adapted from ‘The Seagull’ by Anton Chekhov.” “Sort of” are the operative words; “Stupid Fucking Seagull” is too original to be derivative. It’s not parody, satire or homage. It is the travelogue of a gifted playwright seeking to answer, “What comes next?”
The plot for “Stupid Fucking Bird” is convoluted. On an old, outdoor stage at the lakeside home of Dr. Sorn (Dan Jaroslaw), his nephew, the aspiring writer Con (Jonathan Davidson), is featuring a performance of his work-in-progress. In attendance are his uncle; his mother, Emma (Kelly Komlen), a successful actress but unsuccessful parent; his buddy Dev (Michael Lopetrone); Mash (Vanessa Sawson), who endures unrequited love for Con; and the famous writer, Doyle Trigorin (Joel Mitchell), who’s currently Emma’s significant other.
Con’s magnum opus is tres avant garde. “It’s a site-specific performance event,” Dev explains. “It’s kind of like a play, but not so stupid.” Emma stops the performance by disparaging talents of both her son and Nina (Katie Terpstra), naif and aspiring actress, who is the piece’s sole performer. You won’t need Sigmund Freud to tell you why Con is such a sensitive, brooding type.
Complicating matters is a sort of love wrecked angle. Dev pines for Mash, who worships Con, who desires Nina, who is enthralled by Trigorin. And his angle? Let’s say he’s easily seduced by a pretty young face.
Unlike in 1895, tempers and emotions are permitted – even encouraged – to flare in the post-modern era, as any episode of “Real Housewives” will illustrate. Posner gives ample opportunity for his characters to vent. That’s raw meat for the top-quality artists assembled here, and they turn it into fillet mignon. When a play calls for an ensemble, director Joe Bailey never fails to deliver.
But Bailey’s concept reflects that Posner’s script calls for more than a tad of Bertolt Brechtian Epic Theatre. The actors are aware that they are performing characters in a play – a fact of which they constantly remind their audience. Bailey takes alienation further; between Alexander H. Trice’s minimalist set and Barbie Amann Weisserman’s selection of costumes, the smoke and mirrors of conventional theater are stripped away.
Now while “Stupid Fucking Bird” demands a tight ensemble, Posner has still written some powerful monologues and dialogues. Their performances are memorable, none more so that Jonathan Davidson’s fiery delivery of Con’s purgative outpour of contempt for the empty, vapid state of the common culture. The scene that will chill you more than the November wind waiting for you as you leave the theater is played by Joel Mitchell and Kelly Komlen. It is a pas de deux of love and hate, played with such passion that it defines the playwright’s view of the “well-made play.”
So is “Stupid Fucking Bird” the revolutionary breakthrough for which Posner is seeking? The text of the play clearly indicates “no.” But more explicitly, the playwright observed in an interview, “We all want what we do to be the life-changing, rock-people’s-world experience that we’ve all seen in one moment in our lives – but there’s not enough theater anywhere that is that kind of work.”
“Stupid Fucking Bird” marks a milestone in a quest. But sometimes the journey is more fulfilling than the destination.
‘Stupid Fucking Bird’
The Ringwald Theatre
22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale
8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 21, 28, Dec. 5
8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 22, 29, Dec. 6
3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23, 30, Dec. 7
8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 24, Dec. 1, 8
2 hours, 20 minutes (with two intermissions)