“The play begins when someone says, ‘Start the f-cking play,’” the show’s protagonist, Con (Blake Merriman), shouts as he walks through the audience.
This is how “Stupid F-cking Bird” opens. Luckily, one woman in the 65-seat venue yells back, or it would have been a long two hours and 40 minutes.
Award-winning playwright Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” premiered in 2013 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., and has since been produced by companies across the nation. Now Art of Warr Productions is presenting “Stupid F-cking Bird” in a limited engagement run at the 13th Street Repertory Theatre.
You need not be familiar with “The Seagull” to enjoy or appreciate “Stupid F-cking Bird.” And if you have seen Chekhov’s work, you will find that Posner does not venture far from the source text in terms of plot, but rather explores the Russian writer’s thematic concerns in a contemporary context.
“Stupid F-cking Bird” is a story of a struggling playwright, Con, who feels unloved by his mother, Emma (Maia Guest), a successful actress, and suspects his girlfriend Nina ( Gallatin graduate Julia Blanchard) is more interested in Emma’s famous novelist boyfriend than she is in him.
In the first act, Con premieres his “site-specific performance event,” titled “Here I Am,” featuring aspiring actress Nina as its star, to his friends and family.
His two best friends are Dev (Brendan Ellis) and Mash (Alexandra Morton), a lovable dork and a downhearted fatalist.
When Dev asks Mash what a “performance event” even is, she says, “It’s kind of like a play but not so stupid. No one’s pretending to be someone else. They say things and do things, or whatever, but they’re not pretending to be, you know, Bob and Trudie, like f-cking five year olds playing house.”
It is indeed a commentary on the very play they are in. In Posner’s work, the actors are vessels for storytelling, and repeatedly acknowledge that they are in a “play, or whatever this is” through Brechtian fourth wall breaks.
At the beginning of each scene, an actor will step forth and announce the time, setting and general circumstances of said scene. “Two nights later, drinking and eating pie — pie that I f-cking made,” says Mash in act one.
Under Joshua Warr’s direction, the players manage to maintain their status as actors-telling-a-story, somewhat removed from the interior life of their character, while also allowing for intervals of emotional honesty and vulnerability; moments of ironic distance are tempered by scenes of stunning realism.
The first act ends in an off-stage gunshot: Con’s suicide attempt. In the second act, he will say to the audience, “The only thing worse than trying to kill yourself and failing is having to talk to your mother after trying to kill yourself and failing.”
Thus follows a confrontational scene between Con and Emma in which both actors deliver stellar performances. It is the most naturalistic scene of the play — devoid of Brechtian devices or quippy asides — and it delivers an emotional punch. As audience members, we get to sink into our voyeurism, our suspension of disbelief left intact, for just a few moments.
The third act jumps ahead four years and begins with Dev giving the audience a recap of what we’ve missed. “Stupid F-cking Bird” allows us to see the full scope of each character’s life; even as they narrate their own deaths, and the distinction between actor and character is continually emphasized, we become invested in their stories.
Each character is, in some way, miserable. Morton expresses her melancholy — mainly over her unreturned affections for Con — in each act with a little tune on her acoustic guitar. “Life is a muddle, life is a chore,” she sings. “Life is a burden, life is a bore.”
It is a play about unrequited love. But it is also a play about the inexorable passage of time, about feeling like an actor in one’s one life, and about the state of theater, and art in general, in the 21st century.
The actors discuss these topics on stage — “if this wasn’t a deconstruction of a classic, we wouldn’t be here right now,” Con says — and thus invite the audience members to reflect as well.
Costume designer Todd Trosclair tells a story with each ensemble in this play. Con is immediately recognizable as kooky playwright, his pants, shirt and jacket all bedecked in slightly different variations of rainbow-colored vertical stripes.
Emma’s outfits were a particular highlight — in a scene set in the middle of the night, she walks onstage in royal blue silk pajamas and kitten heels.
“Stupid F-cking Bird” promises no happy endings, no stories tied up with a bow. Con cries, “Where is the catharsis!” He peers under set pieces and even calls backstage, “We didn’t forget to bring it, did we?”
And yet the play ends on an open-ended, potentially optimistic note, with Merriman holding a gun to his head and screaming, “Stop the f-cking play.”
“Stupid F-cking Bird” is on rep. through Oct. 27 at the 13th Street Repertory Theater, 50 W. 13th St.
A version of this article appears in the Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, print edition. Email Julie Goldberg at [email protected]