Playwright Aaron Posner casts a Chekhov classic into a Generation X aesthetic with Stupid Fucking Bird. The comedic drama has a 1990’s indie cinema feel about it in a small stage production that comes to inhabit Sunstone Studios this weekend courtesy of Placeholder Players. A remarkably nuanced and textured cast works its way through a contemporary US adaptation of The Seagull with heart, poise and powerful emotion that strives to plunge itself right into the existential heart of theatre.
“Start the Fucking Play.” (Zachary Thomas Woods tells everybody that right at the beginning of the play.) Someone has to say that before the play can start. Opening night it was just about everybody...opening night appeared to be sold-out. It was a deeply engaged crowd for a deeply engaging drama.
Woods plays Con--a struggling contemporary playwright who is trying to change the world. He wants to do art that carves its way into the center of reality to find some sort of truth. He’s falling for the woman he has cast in the center of a piece that he’s written. Mary Grace Seigel plays to a casually playful poise and perfection as the actress Nina, who is actively seeking fame and love from everyone. Seigel lends some depth to the character as she explores a deep emotional vulnerability in seeking the love of the famed author Trig, played with a sense of intellectual passion by Rick Bingen.
Grace Berendt is achingly stunning as Mash--a goth girl in fishnets with a ukulele who feels a powerfully overwhelming darkness about the world. The darkness comes at least partially because of the love she feels for Con, which is destined to be forever unrequited. Berendt’s sweetly beautiful voice dances out across the intimate space of Sunstone Studios as she plays something wistfully dreamy about the futile nature of life. Berendt is irresistible in the role...occupying the edges of the ensemble except for a couple of brief moments. The structure of the play allows Berendt an opportunity to show some deeply moving emotional development as Mash opens-up to the possibilities that are open to her. It’s a profoundly satisfying transformation that is presented without undue amplification around the edges of the ensemble.
Jabril Rilley plays with a charming innocence in the role of Dev--a guy who is understandably in love with Mash. Riley resonates a casual wonder about the world that lends an honest, childlike levity to the production. Rilley balances the innocence against a simple, pragmatic wisdom that Posner is clever enough to give the character. So often an adult of innocent wonder is played-up as an idiot. Posner may have placed a bit of that in the script, but Rilley plays it with such an intellectually adroit energy that Dev feels like a fully-rendered person onstage.
Kim Emmer plays Con’s mom. Bill Molitor plays an old, retired doctor. They’re both given their moments, but Posner hasn’t really been able to engage with them in a way that feels truly connected and integrated with the rest of the cast...and then...they weren’t THAT significant in Chekhov’s original play anyway...so once again the more experienced end of a cast is on the periphery.
Woods’ presence opens and closes the show. He’s got the first and last lines. As Con, he’s well aware that he’s in a play...and there’s a really cool fusion between actor and character in a gorgeously existential angle of one of the better plays to be placed on any stage so far this year. The complexities of love. art and commerce that Chekhov was working with feel kind of interesting in a contemporary US setting...the whole thing feels like a MUCH more complicated mutation of Helen Childress' Reality Bites.)
There are two more performances.
Placeholder Players' staging of Stupid Fucking Bird runs through September 3rd (one weekend only) at Sunstone Studios on 127 E. Wells Street. For more information, visit Sunstone online.