By Maura Hogan for Charleston City Paper
You don't have to be a theater nerd to get the jokes in Stupid F--king Bird, but it for sure adds another layer to the laugh track. That's because playwright Aaron Posner's whip smart look at the dynamics of love is uncannily akin to the subject it explores. So it has plenty to offer those in a deeply committed relationship with performative art — as well as those who are just looking for a good time on a Saturday night.
Directed by Erin Wilson for What If? Productions, this thoroughly modern, merrily deconstructed remake of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull cleverly folds in contemporary context to the Russian scribe's dramatic musings (and some live acoustic music to boot). It does so in ways that both address the state of the art form, while also poking a bit of lively fun at the age-old puzzler of a duo known as power and love.
To that end, Stupid F--king Bird makes exhaustive, inventive use of the black box in order to renovate and refresh the way we experience theater, though by its own admission makes no claims of a major rehaul. By this I mean that the play removes both the back wall to reveal actors offstage and the "fourth wall" between audience and actor, with performers regularly tossing questions our way (Don't worry: You don't have to answer them). To whit: As we watch characters pine away with sound and fury downstage, we also see others idling mutely at their dressing tables awaiting their next scene.
Think of it as a bit of artistic gentrification, wherein a trendy young couple blithely knocks down parts of a 19th-century house to create a spiffy new open plan. Even its title takes a swipe at the somewhat mournful majesty of the play's central symbol, the seagull, dropping the f-bomb in glib, eye-rolling dismissal at the weight it holds for its lovelorn characters.
And that makes perfect sense for updating a play set on a Russian country estate and surrounding the imbalanced romances of a hodgepodge of artists. True to the Chekhovian bent, the fine cast can each range from the stately to the ridiculous, whether they are stealing furtive glances at the unrequited object of their affection or waxing suicidal when solidly dumped.
At the home of Sorn (ably played by Laurens Wilson), we encounter a young couple: the hapless, lovestruck Dev (Darryl LaPlante with signature, shaggy dog charm) and his guitar-strumming, Boho gal Mash (the terrific Bess Lawson). We quickly glean that Dev is way more into Mash than the other way around. Why is that? She's too distracted by the young director Con (the engaging James Ketelaar).
But wait: The plot and pining both thicken with the interplay between Con and his leading lady/paramour Nina (played with sweet appeal by Sarah Callahan Black). In rehearsal, they are well into laying an egg of a outré manqué play. From there, enter the celeb writer Tigorin (a suitably self-satisfied and commanding Kyle Barnette) and his lover Emma, the imperiously cold theatrical grand dame who is also Con's mother (played with convincing matter-of-fact disdain by Beth Curley).
As the scales of love and longing tip and teeter, Posner's rollicking, antic redo demonstrates that nothing has really changed. Pairing off in romance remains a faulty proposition best served with a sigh and a smirk.
After all, today's theater can be equally woefully one-sided. Sitting in spotty audience houses on a regular basis, the true believers can't help but rue why this time-tested cracking of the human condition doesn't regularly get its due in box office receipts or broad acclaim.
Because, guess what? Like unreciprocated love, today's theater maker cannot count on getting those raves that are due. That payback more often lands in the lap of the sorts of Con's pragmatic, ego-powered mother, who unapologetically strong arms her way when making love and making art.
But never mind all that. Just go see Stupid F--king Bird. Indulge in a few hearty, commitment-free laughs. While you're at it, dabble in a bit of superior thinking as put forth by an energized, excellent troupe of actors. It won't hurt a bit. And no one will expect you to call them the next day, I promise.