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A CurtainUp Review
Stupid F**king Bird
Christ what they're doing to Shakespeare these days to make him "accessible"... and the tiny, tepid, clever-y clever-y clever-y little plays that are being produced by terrified theatres just trying to keep ancient Jews and gay men and retired academics and a few random others who did plays in high school trickling in their doors... — Con
Alex Keiper as Mash (Photo credit: Mark Garvin). --
Right after its 2013 premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington D.C., I read the script of Stupid Fucking Bird and found Aaron Posner punching air holes in Chekhov's 19th century play, The Seagull, cracking it open. His impertinent spin isn't about modernizing or translating, but rather a point of departure for taking on things he wants to address. The following year Woolly Mammoth revisited the somewhat revised play, and the bird took off, flying wild up and down the East Coast and hitting theaters and college campuses on its cross-country flight all the way to Utah, Oregon, California and more. With countless productions in the U.S. and more in process in the UK, continental Europe, Australia, and Argentina, Stupid Fucking Bird is the IT play.

At Philadelphia's Arden Theatre this show is very special. Aaron Posner co-founded this theater with Terrence Nolen back in '88. And while all the other productions of SFB (also with the sanitized F**king in the title), were directed by others, Posner, an accomplished director, has finally directed a production himself.

Writing the play was an act of discovery that tied his own truth and concerns to Chekhov's POV about the state of the theatre, the nature of art, and matters of life, love and the lack thereof. SFB, personal and funny, has an honesty that breaks through. Posner goes his own way, often making explicit things that Chekhov left implicit. His characters, like Chekhov's, comment on theatre and long for change. But Pirandello-like, the actors extend their search for truth beyond stage "reality" into a supposed "real" life, and take it out into the audience. (Although, speaking strictly for me, connecting with an audience via responses is overrated.)

As he channels the theatre giant's work, frustrated hope wrapped in bleak nihilism settles into a more existential affirmation. His take on Con's (Chekhov's Treplev) unappreciated little play asserts: "You are here. You are here. . ." The treatment of desperately painful mismatched love recalls Erica Jong's line, "the howling chaos of the heart," as characters lament their lives.

Seven well-cast and sublimely grounded actors inhabit two simultaneous realities and take the challenges of this complex work in their stride. Modern, rakish set design features the show's title scrawled in white across a huge backdrop, with a cut-out photo of Chekhov's head as a sort of punctuation. James Sugg's music, with Posner's cool and crazy lyrics, is played along with music by sound designer Daniel Perelstein.

A few obviously recently added lines like, "I can show you my tax returns," elicit huge laughs. For more specific detail and discussion of SFB's plot see the CurtainUp review of Pearl Theater's production here

Before I saw the show I asked Aaron about the experience of directing this play at his old stomping ground. He said it's special, and it was a thrill for him to direct Grace Gonglewski in the role of Emma (Chekhov's Arkadina), because he had written the part for her. I asked if he'd seen any of the (zillion) productions across the country. He has seen about a dozen, and he's gratified that his play has been done well and has been well received. He was particularly happy to learn that that it clearly appeals to college students, because this kind of work shows that they can find connections between old classic stuff and new approaches. When asked if he had issues with any of the productions of his play that he's seen, he said he loved much about them, even when, sometimes, things were done that he didn't totally agree with. He is pleased that the core of his project, what he was up to, has come through. I asked him about his take on NYC's Pearl Theater's recent production directed by Davis McCallum, because it was reviewed by CurtainUp's editor, Elyse Sommer. He said it had wonderful things in it and many virtues, and he'd told Davis that he'd unquestionably steal a few things from his direction of the play.

Aaron Posner already is off on a Chekhov-based binge with new plays either out or in the pipeline. I'll definitely want to see them

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Stupid F**king Bird by Aaron Posner
Directed by Aaron Posner
Cast: Cindy De La Cruz (Nina), Grace Gonglewski (Emma), Dan Hodge (Dev), Alex Keiper (Mash), Aubie Merrylees (Con), Karl Miller (Trigorin), Greg Wood (Dr. Sorn)
Scenic Design: Timothy Mackabee
Lighting Design: Thom Weaver
Costume Design: Katherine Fritz
Sound Design: Daniel Perelstein
Choreographer: Amy Smith
Sept 15 to Oct 16, 2016
2 hours and 30 minutes including one 10 minute intermission
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 09/28/2016 performance. Arden Theatre, 2nd Street, Philadelphia

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