Posner’s script sticks close to Chekhov’s storyline: a young aspiring playwright Con (originally Konstantin) lives in the country by a lake with his cynical world-weary uncle Dr. Sorn, a combination here of Chekhov’s Dr. Dorn and Uncle Sorin. When his mother Emma Arkadina (Irina), a famous aging actress, and her young lover Trigorin, a noted writer of fiction, come for a rare visit, Con puts on a “site-specific performance-event,” hoping for her approval. In its only role he has put his sometime girlfriend Nina, an aspiring actress. Although Emma likes Nina’s performance, she has only disdain for the avant-garde play and Con abruptly cancels the performance. Nina is attracted to Trigorin partly by his fame and his worldliness and he to her. In despair, Con attempts to shoot himself and Emma resolves to take Trigorin back to the city before she loses him to the younger woman.
Four years later, we meet up with all of the characters again in the country after Nina and Trigorin have had an abortive affair and Emma has taken him back. Con is just beginning to have some success as a writer when Nina shows up, a wreck of a woman and events play out to their inevitable conclusion. The cast of characters also includes Con’s friend, Dev, a schoolteacher (Medvedenko in Chekhov) and Mosh, (a combination of Masha, the daughter of the estate manager, and The Cook), desperately in love with Con while Dev pines for her. In Posner’s version, he has reduced the cast from 13 to seven, more workable for contemporary theater companies.
Posner has turned Chekhov’s four-act play into two-part meta-theater: not only do the actors acknowledge the audience and solicit our participation, but they each have a monologue addressed directly to us. The actors sit around the stage when they are not in a scene, almost like they are attending a rehearsal. Aside from the obvious use of contemporary American vernacular, Posner has fun with iconic Chekhov lines that have grown stale. When asked why she always wears black, Mosh at first says, “Black is slimming,” before giving her original answer (“I’m in mourning for my life.”) He has changed Mosh and Dev’s story, giving them a different ending. While Chekhov’s Konstantin talks of the theater needing new forms, Posner’s version is the very new form that was predicted all those years ago. Finally, Posner has added an epilogue in which the actors address the audience one by one and give us a new take on the original ending.
Sandra Goldmark’s scenery for the play’s opening scene is made up of flats that look like the back of a traditional set. The kitchen scene later on has working appliances and a large table on a stage wagon set in the middle of an empty stage so we see all the backstage areas usually hidden from view. One of the problems with the production is that the use of the flats with the title in white letters on a black background one story high is extremely distracting, aside from continually reminding us throughout the first half that we are watching a play.
As directed by McCallum, some of the actors have been allowed to make choices that are disconcerting even in this meta-theatrical context. Christopher Sears’ Con rants and raves all over the stage often screaming at the top of his lungs, doing everything but pulling out his hair. This over-the-top performance is not only off-putting but distracts from the rest of the play and makes him seem much younger than the character’s biological age. As his self-absorbed mother, Bianca Amato is excellent at establishing that she desperately fears growing old and watching her career disappear. However, she is less successful at creating sympathy for herself that she cares about or understands her troubled son.
Marianna McClellan gives a lovely portrayal of Nina on the verge of young womanhood and searching both for a career and a great love. She grows up before our very eyes. Erik Lochtefeld’s Trigorin may be a passive-aggressive always giving in to the more assertive Emma but he doesn’t really show the strength that allows him to break away from her and have his affair with Nina. Dan Daily, who appeared in the Pearl’s staged reading tryout of the play a little over one year ago, makes very human Dr. Dorn, a man who is still seeking purpose in his life. Joey Parsons’ Mosh is less comic that usual while Joe Paulik’s Dev is more comic, certainly a new interpretation of the Chekhov original. Parsons has also been given some touching and poignant songs in which she accompanies herself on the ukulele.
Modern playwrights have often attempted to update Chekhov’s Tsarist era plays with varying success. What few of them have done is to recreate the play so that it believable takes place today. This Aaron Posner has achieved with great success in Stupid Fu**ing Bird. For the Pearl Theatre Company production, Davis McCallum has interpreted the new text with some debatable choices. However, this does not keep the play from being a brilliant example of meta-theater.
Stupid Fu**ing Bird (through May 8, 2016)
The Pearl Theatre Company, 555 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-563-9261 or visit http://www.pearltheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission