STUPID FUCKING BIRD (Arden): A sidesplitting and insightful reinvention of Chekhov

The ensemble of Arden Theatre Company’s STUPID FUCKING BIRD (Clockwise, from bottom): Cindy De La Cruz, Alex Keiper, Aubie Merrylees, Greg Wood, Grace Gonglewski, Karl Miller, and Dan Hodge (Photo credit: Mark Garvin).

The ensemble of Arden Theatre Company’s STUPID FUCKING BIRD (Clockwise, from bottom): Cindy De La Cruz, Alex Keiper, Aubie Merrylees, Greg Wood, Grace Gonglewski, Karl Miller, and Dan Hodge (Photo credit: Mark Garvin).

Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, written in 1895, provides hilarious fodder for Aaron Posner’s STUPID FUCKING BIRD, making its Philadelphia premiere at Arden Theatre Company. The uproarious comedy, which Posner directs here for the first time, is not so much an adaptation of the 19th-century Russian play (the program states it’s only “sort of adapted”); it’s more an irreverent contemporary reinvention, examining Chekhov’s iconic characters and timeless themes from a distinctly post-modern parodic perspective.

Told in the format of a play-within-a-play, the characters are current theater artists presenting a new work on a stage-upon-a-stage, before a huge painted backdrop with the show’s title–and Chekhov’s head dotting the letter “i” (set design by Tim Mackabee). All the existentialist angst is there, the triangles of unrequited love and longing, and the self-referencing desire to create new forms of theater that will change the world, but Posner’s original script brings not just smiles and nods, but full-out belly-laughs to the behavior of the self-centered characters and their misguided self-interests, while still recognizing the big issues that did, do, and always will plague humankind.  

Cast to perfection, Arden’s stellar ensemble of seven captures the essence of the updated roles, fully committing to the laughably flawed characters and the side-splitting inside jokes about the theater. Those include a trendy description of the piece as “a site-specific performance event,” the insertion of a few movement-based segments that are now the rage (choreography by Amy Smith), and an admission to actually liking the wildly popular Cirque du Soleil.

In the lead, Aubie Merrylees delivers the childish torment, rage, and self-destructiveness of the aspiring young playwright Con, and Grace Gonglewski (whom Posner had in mind when he wrote her role) is amusingly grand, histrionic, and vain as his egocentric mother, the aging actress Emma. Karl Miller (a dead ringer for Chekhov) is Emma’s lover, the acclaimed writer Trigorin, who is tempted by Nina–the object of Con’s affection, portrayed with serious starry-eyed ambition by Cindy De La Cruz.

 

Alex Keiper and Dan Hodge in the Arden’s STUPID FUCKING BIRD (Photo credit: Mark Garvin).

Alex Keiper and Dan Hodge in the Arden’s STUPID FUCKING BIRD (Photo credit: Mark Garvin).

Alex Keiper is a howl as the depressed Mash, who dresses in black (character-defining costumes by Katherine Fritz), hates life, suffers from her unrequited love for Con, and sings of her never-ending disappointments while accompanying herself on ukulele (original songs by James Sugg). Dan Hodge brings a spirit of affable humor and optimism to the “boob” Dev, singing, strumming, and complaining along with the pessimistic Mash, but recognizing that, despite all of life’s challenges, we can still have hope. Rounding out the cast is the ever terrific Greg Wood as Dr. Sorn (a mash-up of Chekhov’s Sorin and Dr. Dorn), who regrets the choices he made in life, longs for a hug, and delivers some of the show’s most soul-searching soliloquies.

Supported by the effective lighting of Thom Weaver and sound by Daniel Perelstein, Posner’s actors move in and out of character, at times addressing the audience directly to discuss plot points, to ask for advice, and to make it clear that they are all aware, and we should be too, that this is a play. This driving concept (“We’re all kind of performing every day, in our own way”) is a witty restatement of Shakespeare’s observation that “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” Like the dead seagull, “it’s a metaphor”— of the absurdities of life, love, and death, and the unnecessary ambition to create new forms of theater, when, as with Shakespeare, what’s really important is to reveal the intrinsic ethos and universal dilemmas of us all, be it in tragic drama or riotous parody. Posner and Arden have done that impeccably in STUPID FUCKING BIRD.

[40 N. 2nd St., F. Otto Haas Stage] September 15-October 16, 2016; ardentheatre.org.  

 

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About the author

Debra Miller

Debra holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware and teaches at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ. She is a judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice, and has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and President of the Board of Directors of Da Vinci Art Alliance. Her publications include articles, books, and catalogues on Renaissance, Baroque, American, Pre-Columbian, and Contemporary Art, and feature articles on the Philadelphia theater scene.