Stupid F**cking Bird
San Francisco Playhouse
Prior to seeing Aaron Posner’s Stupid F**cking Bird, I revisited Chekhov’s The Seagull and surprisingly found myself wanting to laugh at the extreme melancholy, quickness of each character to cry over any available disappointment, and the seriousness and weight given to most every interaction. While most translations and productions of Chekhov do not lead to laughter, Mr. Posner has taken the classic story and characters, updated them to today, and helped us close the gap from strictly serious to often hilarious. The storylines of the modern adaptation and the original are similar as various love-sick characters seek fulfillment from those not interested in them, as wanna-be’s try to act as if they are really important, and as natural relationships (like mother and son) are anything but normal. But in this version, Mr. Posner pushes each scene and character just a bit beyond the line that Chekhov has drawn as the limit of expression; and the result is melancholy, exasperation, and desperation that we can both relate to and laugh at.
As the family and friends before us stumble through deep questions like ‘What is love?’, ‘Am I lovable?’, and ‘Is life even worth the effort?’, we as audience are forced to join in their search for answers as the fourth wall is broken with requests, even demands, that we provide input and advice. The boundaries between written dialogue and real-time conversation are blurred, and we all become a part of a parody called everyday life that is being played out before us. What is even more fun is that the most mundane of answers from audience members are the ones latched onto by the stage as “Yes, that is the answer.” (For example, when the love-sick Con is seeking advice how to win the reluctant Nina, some audience members offer serious-sounding, well-meaning advice while one says, “Buy her a present.” It is the latter that he walks off supposedly resolved to do.) The play we are both watching and are in beautifully toys with our tendency as humans to make mountains out of molehills; to focus on our own individual situations as the be-all, end-all; and to jump at any possible self-help suggestion that comes along as the possible, final cure-all.
As the play continues, Mr. Posner seems to be adding to his parody and the fun by evoking prime examples of the theatre of the absurd. Our characters spend lots of time in conversations that go nowhere (“Waiting for Godot”) and appear to be resigned to and trapped in their life patterns and journeys (“No Exit”), eventually giving in to less-than-aspired hopes or at least shrugging shoulders as to say, “So maybe this is as good as it can get.” We and they begin to have glimpses that there are ironies, miscues, and unresolved dilemmas in everyday life that maybe we can learn to accept and then just move on in our own imperfections. The alternative, as we learn from the suicide-contemplating Con, is not so good. The beauty of this adaption is that we get permission to laugh at our own screwed-up, everyday, ‘all-important’ lives rather than just contemplate how bad they really often are (as in Chekhov).
To a person, this is a fine enough cast, and they act well together as an ensemble. Bill English’s set, as always, is inventive, flexible, and appropriately suggestive of a modern American version of that Russian, country setting of Seagull. Susi Damilano’s direction suggests both the deliberate, contemplative pace of the Chekhov original while also flipping at times to the frenetics of people on the edge of making themselves crazy in their frustrated pursuits of love, fulfillment, and meaning to life. It does feel that the second half of the play begins to circle on itself a bit too much and a quicker exit would make the play stronger. That is probably more due to the writer than the director.
And then there is a bird (and it is indeed a seagull). Its metaphorical place in Chekhov is given an even more central role in Posner’s play. The seagull becomes the reason given for making a tough, life decision. While absurd, it is probably very real that we all sometimes act in much the same f**king ways as players on the stage as we look for ways to explain to ourselves and others why we do what we do during this journey of life.
Rating: 4 E’s