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Stupid Fucking Bird

Critics' pick
1/4
Photograph: Jonathan L. Green
Nina O’Keefe and company in Stupid Fucking Bird at Sideshow Theatre Company
2/4
Photograph: Jonathan L. Green
Matt Fletcher, Katy Carolina Collins, Nina O’Keefe, Nate Whelden, Cody Proctor, Stacy Stoltz and Norm Woodel in Stupid Fucking Bird at Sideshow Theatre Company
3/4
Photograph: Jonathan L. Green
Norm Woodel, Katy Carolina Collins, Matt Fletcher, Nate Whelden, Stacy Stoltz, Cody Proctor and Nina O’Keefe in Stupid Fucking Bird at Sideshow Theatre Company
4/4
Photograph: Jonathan L. Green
Cody Proctor, Nina O’Keefe and Stacy Stoltz in Stupid Fucking Bird at Sideshow Theatre Company

Sideshow Theatre Company at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater. By Aaron Posner. Directed by Jonathan L. Green. With Katy Carolina Collins, Matt Fletcher, Nina O'Keefe, Cody Proctor, Stacy Stoltz, Nate Whelden, Norm Woodel. Running time: 2hrs 10mins; one intermission.

Theater review by Kris Vire

Con (Nate Whelden), the frustrated young playwright at the center of Aaron Posner's cheeky update of Chekhov's The Seagull, is like his Russian counterpart obsessed with pushing theater into "new forms." Unlike in any translation of Chekhov I've read, however, Con's conciliative pal Dev (Matt Fletcher) asks him, "Like this? This play we're in right now. Is this the kind of new work you mean? New forms?" To which Con replies, "No no no. Fuck no! Better than THIS!"

Posner's take, if not a "new form," is a bracingly fresh take on Chekhov's "comedy" in which everyone ends up dead, crazy or at the very least compromised. Yes, all of his characters are aware they're in a play; they frequently pause the action to address us directly, in speech and in song. But (and this is crucial) they're not aware they are characters in a play; even when Con breaks in mid-sentence to accuse an audience member of checking his playbill to see if Whelden has any bigger credits on his résumé, it's really not a wink-and-nudge ironic hedge. These are real, full people who just happen to acknowledge that their emotionally messy lives happen to exist within the confines of a theater piece.

To be sure, it's a device that allows Posner, a D.C.-based director and playwright, to comment even more directly on the state of the art than Chekhov did in his original, with Konstantin's urge to innovate in part a rebellion against the predilections of his actress mother, Arkadina, for dumbed-down popular fare. Here, Con's mother is known as Emma (Stacy Stoltz), apparently a star of pandering movies; it's easy to imagine her taking Ashley Judd's place alongside Harry Connick and Morgan Freeman on the current posters for Dolphin Tale 2.

Emma has come home for a visit with her new lover, the author Doyle Trigorin (Cody Proctor), who catches the eye of Nina (Nina O'Keefe), the aspiring actress Con is obsessively in love with. This puts Con in a similar position to Mash (Katy Carolina Collins), here portrayed as a ukulele-strumming goth girl who's hopelessly in love with him, while Dev longs for Mash so powerfully he feels it in his thighs—"Who ever heard of a love so powerful your thighs ache?"—but can't get her to give him the time of day.

Rounding out the group is Sorn (Norm Woodel), a conflation of some of Chekhov's more minor characters (modern constrictions on cast size being another target of metatheatrical commentary). Here, he's both Emma's older brother and a country doctor who self-medicates by mixing vodka into his fiber supplement.

Despite the irreverence that's evident in Posner's title (and the salty, modern language sprinkled liberally throughout the play), this isn't a satire. Neither is it derisive of Chekhov's work. Posner calls it a "sort-of adaptation"; I might suggest it's a high-fidelity reboot, though with far more heart than is possessed by the grim franchise-resets to which Hollywood applies that term.

Sideshow artistic director Jonathan L. Green gets the slippery tonal shifts and character self-awareness down to a T in his staging of the play's Midwest premiere, which features an impressively adaptive scenic design by Joe Schermoly that transparently transforms for each of the piece's three acts.

Green's cast is near-ideal. Sideshow company members Whelden and Fletcher and artistic associate O'Keefe each deliver some of the most honest work I've seen from them; O'Keefe's transformation from Nina as naïf to broken soul is haunting stuff. Seeing the storefront stalwart Stoltz in full-on destroyer mode ("not God, child, but still... full of wrath and terrible to behold") is a thing of terrifying beauty. (It's true that O'Keefe, Proctor, Stoltz and Whelden all seem a little too close in age to be multiple generations, but once their characters addressed their actorly portrayals, that concern fell away.)

Posner could have sent up The Seagull; instead, he's made it more easily accessible for the Confessional Era in a mode that acknowledges our collective cynicism while finding ways to push back against it. This is, dare I say, a staggering work of heartbreaking stupid fucking genius.

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