A CurtainUp Review
Stupid Fu**ing Bird
By Elyse Sommer
A more recent adaptation is by Aaron Posner. Unlike his excellent but serious dramatizations of novelist Chaim Potok's The Chosen and My Name Is Asher Lev , his version of The Seagull is a devilishly amusing riff. The venerable Pearl Theatre Company is currently offering New Yorkers a chance to see this "sort of" adaptation, cheekily re-titled Stupid Fu**cking Bird , with the inspirational work relegated to a tag line. That "sort of" in the program's subtitle gives fair warning to expect a lot more changes than an updated setting and somewhat more contemporary language.
That's not to say that Posner has ditched any of the key characters, or doesn't stick to the basic story. While Chekhov's cast of characters came to a baker's dozen, Posner has made do with just seven. Despite some name and occupation changes, all are recognizably linked to their Chekhovian origins. Madame Arkadina is now a movie star more informally known as Emma Arkdadina. Her older brother Sorin is a doctor, thus neatly eliminating the need for Chekhov's Dr. Dorn.
All the play's four young people are in love, but of course with someone who's smitten with someone else. Masha, who is now named Mash and occasionally strums a guitar and sings a song (composed by James Suggs with lyrics by Posner), does get to answer Medevenko-cum-Dev's question about why she wears black all the time with what's probably the play's best known and most frequently quoted line: "I'm in mourning for my life" — but since this is a much more hip sort of gal, this follows a cooler initial comeback of "it's slimming." The lyrics for the song that follows the famous line echoes its sadness ("life is a burden/life is a bore").
Posner's clever conceit is to not only stick to Chekhov's basic plot and themes, but to do a one-up on the play within the play scene that triggers the variously unhappy plot developments — that's the one where the sensitive young wannabe groundbreaking playwright presents his poetic but unfathomable play for a small group that includes his successful but insensitively self-absorbed mother. That play within Chekhov's Seagull is now the play that frames the adaptation in which the characters are "real" people living the story of the play; and the Pearl's audience members are the guests. The fourth wall breaking riffs include all sorts of pertinent commentary and, in one scene inviting the audience to give advice to the lovelorn Con (nee Konstantin), which those in attendance when I was there thoroughly enjoyed doing.
Two stars that are inserted over two of the title's letters to make it printable in places where the F-word is still frowned upon. But the title appears without stars in the Pearl's program. More importantly, Posner's title is on full and undisguised display in the large movable panels that dominate Sandra Goldmark's set. With its several doorways and enough height for action to take place on two levels, this huge prop admirably serves the meta-theatrical format.
Naturally it takes high-spirited, versatile performers to capture the themes and the anguish of the characters as envisioned by Chekhov, and drastically modernized by Posner. The Pearl is therefore fortunate to have director Davis McCallum on board to help the actors make this radically new and original adaptation work as smartly and enjoyably as it does.
Christopher Sears brings the right passion to his rants about the lack of cutting edge, relevant theater as well as his yearning for the beautiful Nina, though he would be just as effective if he took things down a decibel level or two. Marianne McClellan deftly navigates the lovely and ambitious Nina's tragic journey through infatuation with Trigorin and her disillusioned self-image of herself as a seagull too fragile and small to actualize her acting ambition.
Bianca Amata taps into the assured sophistication of Emma Arkadena. She also injects a nice touch of humor into a hilarious soliloquy intended to justify her shortcomings as a mother. T his is clearly a woman who will not allow her lover to abandon her for an unsophisticated young girl like Nina. As for that straying lover, Eric Lochtefeld nicely embodies the literary celebrity who finds it hard to resist the admiration of a beautiful young girl, but is equally unable to break free from his older mistress. Dan Daily, who's long been one of the Pearl's leading players, handles the relatively minor role of Sorin with more than usual reserve.
Joey Parsons (another Pearl regular) and Joe Paulik are the production's most endearing and funny characters, Mash and Dev. Paulik gets to deliver the final meta-theatrical twist of telling the audience what happens to all the characters (which in this case includes a Posner devised happier conclusion to his initially unrequited affection for Mash).
The production values overall are excellent. Mike Inwood's lighting and Amy Clark's costume are particularly striking for Nina's performance in the play during which Con's mother acts as rudely and disruptively as some of today's audience members who fail to turn off their cell phones.
There's no need to have seen a production of the play to enjoy this new-fangled version. But those familiar with The Seagull as written and more traditionally staged are more likely to fully appreciate the way this adaptation has captured so much, and yet comes off as a completely original and hilarious entertainment. That said, much as I enjoyed Mr. Posner's inventiveness, I wouldn't want anyone to see this as negating the pleasures of seeing the play as written by Chekhov. While another modern adaptation, The Seagull and Other Birds is finishing a run off-off Broadway at the Abrons Arts Center, no more conventioanl production is on the immediate horizon. However, a 1975 filmed production with a cast that includes Blythe Danner and Frank Langella can be seen at Youtube.