In “Stupid F#@*ing Bird” at ACT, playwright Aaron Posner takes a meta-theatrical run at Chekhov, with tight direction by Boston Court co-artistic director Jessica Kubzansky.
In the past few years, Anton Chekhov has been a familiar presence at ACT Theatre, which has hosted earnest, meticulous productions of “The Seagull” and “The Three Sisters” from local company The Seagull Project, and staged Christopher Durang’s misbegotten Chekhovian riff “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”
Chekhov’s proto-modernist portraits of existential angst are attractive targets for re-imagination, perhaps because of a persistent, misguided idea that his plays are “cultural vegetables” — nutritious and necessary, but not very exciting.
‘Stupid F#@*ing Bird’
by Aaron Posner. Through May 8, ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; tickets from $20 (206-292-7676 or acttheatre.org).
Aaron Posner’s “Stupid F#@*ing Bird” is “The Seagull” with a metafictional wrinkle; the characters all know they’re in a play and occasionally remind us, and the action doesn’t begin until an audience member can be persuaded to blurt out: “Start the f#@*ing play!”
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Posner deploys the self-reflexivity a little haphazardly, with lulls where the play proceeds as a reasonably straightforward re-creation of Chekhov’s narrative. Posner updates the language — he’s got an undeniable gift for capturing the directness of Chekhov’s dialogue — but otherwise refrains from too-aggressive modernization. There are no selfie sticks or references to Snapchat.
Most of the names are truncated and some characters have disappeared, but the details remain largely unchanged. Playwright Con (Adam Standley) is inspired by his muse, Nina (Jasmine Jean Sim), but worries her love is slipping away thanks to the presence of Trig (Connor Toms), a successful but venal author who’s dating Con’s ruthless actress-mother, Emma (Suzanne Bouchard). Meanwhile, Mash (Keiko Green) pines for Con, and is pined for by Dev (MJ Sieber), while Emma’s brother Sorn (G. Valmont Thomas) oversees the proceedings on his estate.
In “The Seagull,” Konstantin obsesses over creating a new theatrical form, and in “Bird,” Con emerges as Posner’s surrogate, fretting over the state of the arts (“Do you have any idea what’s passing itself off as theater these days?”) and yearning for a theatrical revolution, while admitting that a self-aware Chekhov rip-off hardly qualifies.
These moments should feel too clever by half, but Standley’s performance is a welcome leavening agent, folding in layers of authentic self-deprecation that I’m not sure are genuine in Posner’s script. “Bird” is, by design, a play that unfolds in fits and starts, but Standley’s performance keeps it running smoothly. He mounts desperation with a precision that would be right at home in an actual Chekhov play, but can seamlessly shift into slick banter with audience members as he solicits ideas for script improvements.
Under Jessica Kubzansky’s tight direction, the cast is uniformly excellent. Four are part of ACT’s new core company (Green, Sim, Thomas and Toms), but the whole ensemble works together in interlocking variations on a theme — Green’s rueful bitterness, Sieber’s strained niceties, Sim’s diminished exuberance and Thomas’ gentle resignation are all thoroughly Chekhovian pictures of disappointment.
“Bird” is too much of a doodle to justify its literal life-or-death conclusion, but it’s an endearing work that doesn’t just make one wish for “The Seagull” instead.
That may not be revolutionary, but it’s not nothing.