A Play, a ‘Bird’ That’s Not So ‘Stupid’

Howard Shalwitz
Howard Shalwitz

That’s some bird, that stupid f-----g bird.

That would be “Stupid F------g Bird,” the play by director-playwright Aaron Posner, now getting resurrected in zingy, audience-pleasing style for a late-summer run at the Woolly Mammoth Theater. It will be directed by Woolly’s stalwart ‘s artistic director and founder Howard Shalwitz.

You might remember that “SFB,” Posner’s deft, irreverent riff on Anton Chekov’s “The Seagull” in a very contemporary and near-interactive mode debuted last summer as a play commissioned by Woolly as part of its “Free the Beast” program, an ambitious ten-year project that supports new plays (some 25 new works) through workshops, commissioning and research.

And look what happened.

It’s not every day that a regional theater gives birth to a play that is so defiantly theatrical that it succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The play won two Helen Hayes awards for Best New Play and Best Resident Play for the 2013-2014 season. Not only that the play moved on to very successful- productions in Boston and Los Angeles.

“We thought it would be great to look at it again, from the audience standpoint and from the artist’s—the actors, myself, Aaron and the designers,” Shalwitz said. “And you know, this whole thing has just been amazing. It’s a kind of phenomena, yeah, sure. I mean, you remember the thing where Con asks the audience to give him advice on how to win back Nina’s affections, right? Well, the preview audiences were ready for it. This time, I think we saw a lot of repeat attendees from last year’s productions.”

“I just think Aaron came up with something new, but it was a trick thing, you know,” Shalwitz said. “I think he (and the whole production team) accomplished something very difficult to bring off. You can read this and not necessarily get the whole sense of it. It wasn’t a rip-off of Chekhov, or some sendup that totally disrespected the original, because that play was full of pathos, but was also, in its own quieter way, funny and nearly tragic. We always know what play we’re in. And so do the actors. We’re here now, so to speak.”

Which is why an actor comes on the stage and says, “Start the f-----g” play.

The “SFB” in question is a seagull who, in both the original and Posner’s version meets an unhappy end by the hand of Con, the angst-ridden, mother-issues semi-hero of this saga, a would-be-poet-artist-playwright who wants to discover new forms, a new kind of art and new life in the utmost serious way. He’s also in love—grandly, operatically, hopelessly, and close to suicide —with Nina, a feverish, beautiful young would-be actress with whom he’s staging a new-form play for the benefit of his mother Emma, who is a famous star of stage, screen and everything else, as well as for her new lover, a famous writer.

We’re in familiar territory here. These are Americans who could be found in People Magazine, theatricals of the celebrity world. Here’s Posner, making it here and now as in “here we are,” the oft-repeated phrase that Nina uses in Con’s little play.

“Aaron found new forms, too, for contemporary theater,” Shalwitz said. “The actors talk to the audience. They’re self-aware of being in a play. They want involvement. They don’t want to be alone with their problems, and so it is a new form. That pathos in the original is here, too. I think it’s changed a little from where we started. With that, audience connections, it changes a little every time out. “

The language—pungent (life sucks, or the f-word like a loud intruder at a party) also manages to be poetic, a delicate balancing act for actors. There are times when the play seems almost too smart and hip by half, too inside-theaterish. But when you have a cast like this one—the same one that appeared in the original—such a complaint can be reduced to a quibble.

“It’s been some time for the actors and the designers, too, so they don’t have the habit of doing the roles for some time,” Shalwitz said. “They’ve done other parts, and will move on to other parts—Kimberly Gilbert, who plays Masha, is going to play the lead in ‘Marie Antoinette,’ our season opener.”

Gilbert, a Washington treasure, in fact, is one of the acting standouts in this production, playing Mash, the cryptic, depressed young woman, who’s smitten with Conrad—Con to us—but settles for Dev, a practical guy who thinks he has little to recommend him, but ends up with Mash. Mash is a jewel, albeit with some ash on her—she introduces the acts playing the ukulele, dressed in punk black and singing sad songs (“Life is disappointing”) in a kind of bright-eyed, knowing way that contradict the content. Gilbert has a gift for understated emoting and emotion, which is perfect for Mash.

While Kate Eastwood Norris, in the part of Emma, the slightly aging diva actress, Cody Nickell as the facile super-writer Doyle, Darius Pierce as Dev, and Brad Koed as Con and Katie Debuys as Nina are all fine in inventive ways. It’s Rick Foucheux who grounds the play and straddles the line between Chekhov and Posner, then and now, nuanced and way cool, with aplomb as Sorn, the good doctor. He’s the observer, and he’s us in a way—astounded at the keen and keening emotions of the various lovers and would-be lovers. He’s like an audience to a feast, bemused, and moved, and by being his own expansive self, he explains it all to us.

What Shalwitz, Posner and company have accomplished is indeed to present something new. A new form, it respects and then invites the audience and knows that it’s always a complicit partner in a play being performed. As I’ve said more than once, there’s no app for that.

"Stupid Fuc---g Bird” runs at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre through Aug. 17.

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Fri, 31 Oct 2014 04:23:23 -0400

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