Stupid Fucking Bird

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 8, 2016

Katie deBuys as Nina in the play-within-a-play, with, from left, Cody Nickell, Kate Eastwood Norris, Charles Leggett, Darius Pierce, Kimberly Gilbert
Katie deBuys as Nina in the play-within-a-play, with, from left, Cody Nickell, Kate Eastwood Norris, Charles Leggett, Darius Pierce, Kimberly Gilbert  

When I went to see "Stupid Fucking Bird," all I had was a general sense that it was a show based on something from Chekhov. Having never read anything from Chekhov (stop reading now if my lack of literary breadth offends you), I was concerned I might not understand the show.

There was no need to worry.

From the moment I sat in my seat and observed the set with the heavy wall of a backdrop decorated with enormous photos of Chekhov, the smattering of chairs, and an electric amplifier, there was a sense of openness: it's all laid out right in front of you. When a young man strides to the very edge of the stage and blares angrily "The play will not begin until someone says 'Start the fucking play!'" the gig is up: there is no room for preconceptions.

In three acts, Aaron Posner's play "Stupid Fucking Bird" is both a criticism of Chekhov's vaunted play "The Seagull" and an excavation and restructuring of the bones and meat of the story. Posner presents us with seven characters whose lives intertwine and detach at intervals; Conrad, a young tortured playwright, and Nina, his ingénue; Dev, Conrad's friend, and Mash, who is not-so-secretly in love with Conrad; Doyle Trigorin, the famous writer whose presence gilds everyone in awe, and Emma, a famous actress who also happens to be Conrad's mother; and Eugene, Emma's brother. There is a theme of unrequited love and longing, of surety that the thing just out of reach is that thing that will make you perfectly happy, and, in the older characters, a wistful acknowledgement of the folly of believing that the grass is greener in any pasture but your own.

The intricate lives of the characters are but one element of the layered play. Conrad, in his youthful fervor, seeks to break the boundaries of traditional theatre, and create "new forms" of art with his work. The show the group has assembled to see is his attempt to eliminate artifice and communicate his profound existential viewpoint. His play, however, is not well received, as those in attendance dismiss the young man's efforts as self-serving and grandiose.

"Stupid Fucking Bird" hews to the plot of Chekhov's "The Seagull"; Nina falls in love with Trigorin; Conrad attempts suicide in his grief over losing her; Trigorin eventually comes back to Emma, Dev and Mash find contentment -- if not mutual joy -- in marriage; Conrad's play (THIS play!) achieves mild success, leaving Conrad to ponder the point of artistic endeavors that leave one always striving for the next, better success. Eugene appears to be the only sane or balanced one of the lot, he in his later years and declining but somehow still happy with his life.

Beyond the plot and characters, however, this show deserves a wholehearted endorsement. The meta, self-aware writing is spectacularly funny, even to someone unfamiliar with the source material. From the first moments of the show to the last, the words move lyrically through character and plot development smoothly, with wisdom and irony and intelligence.

The performers were each similarly gifted, from the deliciously love-muddled Mash (the compelling Kimberly Gilbert, who originated the role) to the convincingly arch and loathsome Emma (Kate Eastwood Norris). Ian Holcomb as Conrad radiates angst, a Luke Skywalker-churlishness that made the back of my hand twitch. Cody Nickell (Trigorin) exudes charisma, leaving me to wonder how a director goes about casting for such a characteristic.

I was delightfully surprised to see Darius Pierce (Dev) again; his performance in last fall's "The Realistic Joneses" was a standout of the season, and this performance makes me eager to see him again and again. He brings an intriguing mixture of sharp comic timing and dramatic intensity.

I was curious to note that a large number of the people involved in this production, from cast to lighting designer, came from or had association with a D.C.-based group Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, including Kate Eastwood Norris, Katie deBuys, Cody Nickell and Darius Pierce, who all originated the roles in D.C. It makes sense, since the play was developed and premiered there. As a proud Portlander, I was a little disappointed that this wasn't a "locally sourced" (Vegan? Gluten-free? Cruelty free? Well, a fake bird DID fake die) production.

Playwright Posner was raised, reportedly, in Eugene, so I suppose his roots are inextricably Oregonian. Perhaps that's what gives his words such quirky flight: his directness and seamless interaction with the audience gives the play a raw and lively temperament, creating a wholly unexpected and new theatre experience. And that, clearly, achieves what Chekhov was advocating: a new form of art, shedding all subtext in favor of stating our wants and needs and aversions outright and letting the consequences fall where they may.

It's a powerful new way of interacting with the world, one that deserves exploration and attention and, if we can manage, adoption into our own ways of thinking. While you can, please go and see "Stupid Fucking Bird" and let its boldness and humor and intelligence wash over you.

"Stupid Fucking Bird" runs through March 27 at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW Eleventh Avenue, Portland, OR, 97209. For tickets or information, call 503-445-3700 or visit http://www.pcs.org/bird/index.html

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.