Review: “Stupid Fucking Bird” by Aaron Posner at San Francisco Playhouse (****1/2)

by Charles Kruger
Rating: ****1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Nobody in America who has taken a course on the history of theatre, or subscribed to a theatrical season with any artistic pretensions, has failed to encounter Anton Chekhov. Probably (along with Ibsen) the most influential playwright of the 20th century, his work informs every important play that has come after. Along with Shakespeare, learning to perform Chekhov is at the core of almost every professional training program for actors. In short, Chekhov is Serious. Fucking. Art. You’d better believe it.

And, as with the Bard of Avon, this encumbering weight of artistic significance can be, to say the last, stultifying. Playwrights such as these need sometimes to be rescued from their own reputations. In that regard, playwright Aaron Posner performs the work of a super hero in resuscitating Chekhov’s “The Seagull” as “Stupid Fucking Bird.” Hooray!

Chekhov’s themes are well known. He writes of the longing for love and meaning. His characters ache for one another, and ache for art. He was “emo” decades before the term had been coined — and in Russian! If I seem to be dismissive of the master, let me remind you that the good playwright always insisted that his works were comedies, in spite of the seriousness with which they are so often played.

With “Stupid Fucking Bird” Posner has taken the master at his word. This is certainly a comedy, and a mighty funny one, too. And yet, the Chekhovian themes of longing, as well as the original plot, have not been compromised. Posner manages to deliver the essence of “The Seagull” while simultaneously dismembering it with relish. (To say he has merely “deconstructed” the original seems rather too tame. Feathers fly.)

Mash is desperately in unrequited love with Con. Dev is desperately in unrequited love with Mash. Con adores Nina who is smitten with Trig who is the boy toy of Con’s mother Emma. Sorn (Emma’s avuncular older brother) would like everybody to just get along. And they all care — deeply — about art.

Emma is an accomplished actress and her young lover is a famous writer of short stories, reputedly a genius. Her son Con has gathered the group to see his first play (he calls it a “performance” — a sort of anti-play) with which he hopes to win his mother’s artistic respect. This is an unlikely prospect since Con’s work makes fun of and dismantles exactly the sort of play in which Emma has been successful. Feelings get hurt. It’s all riotously funny. And yet, Posner’s script (and Susi Damilano’s subtle and careful direction) do not short change the depth of human longing these characters feel. We laugh, but we identify, and in the end, we are surprisingly moved.

El Beh as Mash and Johnny Moreno as Trig in SF Playhouse's production of "Stupid Fucking Bird" by Aaron Posner. Photo Credit: SF Playhouse.
El Beh as Mash and Johnny Moreno as Trig in SF Playhouse’s production of “Stupid Fucking Bird” by Aaron Posner. Photo Credit: SF Playhouse.

Everything in this play works well, beginning with Bill English’s subtly humorous set which is well complimented by the other design elements of costume and lighting, music and props. El Beh is a hoot as the gothically clad Mash, singing absurdly depressing songs while accompanying herself on the ukelele. As Nina, the young actress adored by Con, Martha Brigham is deliciously innocent, managing to be silly and entrancing at the same time. As the older, somewhat jaded actress Emma, Carrie Paff is both monstrous and seductive. Joseph Estlack as the love stricken Dev is a comically hapless, lovable Teddy Bear. As Emma’s older brother Sorn, Charles Shaw Robinson plays straight man to this cast of oddballs, and does it well.

The defining performances of this production, however, are Adam Magill’s Con and Johnny Moreno’s Trig. As Con, the suffering young artist desperate to win approval from the very people he condemns, Magill conveys all the confusion and earnestness of youthful creative ambition. His direct interaction with the audience is a highlight of the production, but I won’t spoil that with any more details here. Johnny Moreno is perfectly cast as Trig, the charming, brilliant, dastardly, handsome, heartless, monstrous punk of a genius writer who toys with the emotions and dreams of everybody else because, quite simply, he can. Moreno takes this character and runs with it like the devil, delivering some of his best work to date (at least work that has been seen by this reviewer).

“Stupid Fucking Bird” has a lot to say about the state of our theatre, about Chekhov, about life, about art — and says it with laughter. Guaranteed. This is really good fun, and serious, too. You’ll see.

“Stupid Fucking Bird” plays at the San Francisco Playhouse through May 2, 2015. For further information click here.

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“Stupid Fucking Bird” by Aaron Posner, sort of adapted from “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov. Director: Susi Damilano. Set: Bill English. Sound: Steve Schoenbeck. Lighting: Mark Hueske. Composer: James Sugg. Costumes: Abra Berman. Props: Jacquelyn Scott. 

Mash: El Beh. Nina: Martha Brigham. Dev: Joseph Estlack. Con: Adam Magill. Trig: Johnny Moreno. Emma: Carrie Paff. Sorn: Charles Shaw Robinson.

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