'Stupid F#*@ing Bird': Chekhov's 'Seagull' Worked Over

Back in 1985, Peter Sellars, who was director of the long defunct National Theater at the Kennedy Center, created something of a stir with his production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” which included an all-star cast headed by Colleen Dewhurst, Kevin Spacey, Kelly McGillis and Paul Winfield, among others.

The problem was not in the stars, but with other things: a shrill score by Scriabin, a set that included a Mark Rothko-like backdrop and a prop—a droopy stuffed animal-like seagull, containing the play’s major metaphor—were among the controversies of the production, not a first for this sort of thing for Sellars. People even argued about what the meaning of changing the title from “The Seagull” to “A Seagull” might be.

Twenty-eight years later, there’s a new take and mash on Chekhov’s masterpiece by playwright Aaron Posner at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre. How’s this for a title change? “Stupid F-----g Bird.” You know what we mean to write.

Posner, best known here as a director, has taken Chekhov’s play as a kind of starting point, muse and model, to play with, to send up, and blow up at times, taking care to let you know that this is a play-specific play, if you will. He uses the specific play and its author to say a few things about how we live, create and play and love today, very much today. Along the way, his characters have a lot to say about performance and theater and art, but appear as in the original, befuddled, wounded and totally befuddled about love, the who and why and why not that are as destructive to an artist or playwright, as writer's block.

“SFB”—this acronym will have to do—is a minefield of a play. It makes you metaphorically speaking afraid to put your foot and your feet down because your expectations—reasonable ones, one and all—are continually blowing up in your face. Posner is mindful of Chekhov’s soul and his creation—a series of the glasses-and-beard large images of him fill the walls on stage—but he’s hardly kissing butt in homage here. He’s created the same characters—some are omitted—as in the original, and they behave in the same ways and have to cope with the same triangulations of love. But they are also in the here-and-now, most of the time—the original is not exactly being copied, it acts as an echo.

So, here again is the frustrated, rebellious young son of the supremely regal but nervous famous actress. Here is the innocent but provokingly beautiful Nina. Here’s the why-am-I-old uncle and brother. Here is the famous, somewhat cynical and attractive writer. Here is the mismatched but settling couple. Here are Cam, Emma, Doyle, Nina, Sorn, Mash, and Dev. Here, briefly, fulfilling his role as metaphor is the SFB.

“SFB” both operate on two levels: it’s a play about art and the artist in society and the search for new forms, and it’s a play about the crying-out-loud-painful difficulties of love. In addition, “SFB” is about theater and plays today and turns almost into a bullfight with the audience. The characters step right through the third wall and make the audience play with the play or participate. At one point, Com, the young son of the famous actor stops and turns to the audience and asks for advice on what to do with his desperate love for Nina, who’s fallen for Doyle, the famous writer who is also the lover of Com’s mom. After some hesitation, they give him such advice as “ignore her,” “forget about her” and so on.

These sorts of things keep happening. Masha, (the miraculous Kimberly Gilbert), sings a song while playing the ukulele about modern life (it apparently sucks) in a sweet, knowing voice, or the characters sit facing the audience, explaining what each wants, or we’re offered an aftermath roundup characteristic of television melodramas. This is heady, affirming stuff—not exactly new—and it makes co-conspirators out of the audience. Yet it sometimes co-authors, always an unpredictable thing.

The Woolly crowd—and director Howard Shalwitz—thrive in this sort of thing. It’s like their very own private theatrical swimming pool and sauna. You can’t get hurt when you have the likes of Gilbert—who always manages to wring her own sort of poetry out of a matter-of-fact delivery that is secretly and deeply weird. Consider Masha, Cody Mitchell, who makes self-satisfaction seem warmly attractive as Doyle, the always savy Kate Eastwood-Norris as Emma, the diva mother/actress, Katie DeBuys, who adds an extra-step depth to Nina, and Darius Pierce (as Dev who married Mash, who loves Com) and Rick Foucheux as the wondering Sorn. If you get irritated with Brad Koed as Con, it’s because the part is written that way. Con is the wounded art revolutionary as whiner, both in the romantic and artistic sense.

It’s tempting—because, for instance, that Sellars production of “A Seagull” was a deeply affecting one to me—to feel offended with Posner’s rough handling but also sometimes awe filled respect of Chekhov. Instead, I think “SFB” is a kind of fantastic, giddy sea voyage, always half a second away from shipwreck. It’s smart. It's funny and wise, knowing and fearless, most of the time. But you have to wonder, too, if it’s a little too smart. All this inventive, interactive staging, this reliance on the colloquial—as in “Start the f-----g play” or “This sucks”—seems a little too easy. It’s both deft and anarchic at once. We’re seeing both Chekhov’s and Posner’s “Seagull,” one never far from the other. In a way, “The Seagull” is a kind of safe harbor for “SFB.” You can always return home and be moved.

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