Saturday March 21’s successful premiere of Stupid Fucking Bird, a take off on Chekhov’s The Seagull, bodes well for a good run at the ever warm and welcoming San Francisco Playhouse. a solid hit Rating: Lise Stampfli Rating:
Saturday, March 21’s premiere performance of “Stupid Fucking Bird,” a reworking of Anton Chekhov’s, “The Seagull,” bodes well for a good run at the warm and welcoming San Francisco Playhouse on Stockton.
“Stupid Fucking Bird,” written by Aaron Posner and directed by Playhouse co-founder Susie Damilano, preserves the plot line and major events of Chekhov’s classic, but updates the action with contemporary sets, references, and styling. It’s a tragi-comic mix, infused with performance pieces, music and audience interaction.
The result is a theatre experience that passes by rapidly considering its 2-hour-plus run time. Premier night, an enthusiastic audience lapped up what the Bird delivered—moments of hilarity, mania, and poetry combined with philosophical commentary on art, life and love. Whenever the plot threatens to darken too dramatically, Posner resets to comedy, which he employs with great skill in many forms. Moments when the actors confront the audience and demand engagement work especially well.
For lovers of “The Seagull,” be prepared, some characters have morphed. There are no servants, estate managers or their families. The aged landlord has become the doctor, Sorn, played by Charles Shaw Robinson. He skillfully steps into the role of objective commentator and philosopher. The school teacher is now a family friend, Dev, played by Joseph Estlack, who gets some of the best and longest laughs. Mash, another family friend, is played by talented musician and performance artist El Beh. The action takes place at Sorn’s vacation cabin by a lake, cleverly designed for both indoor and outdoor scenes, and gorgeously lit for time of day and mood by lighting designer, Mark Hueske.
The principal characters are largely unchanged from the original play. Two generations of thespians face off in a clash of creative philosophy and romantic lost causes. Aging Hollywood star, Emma, slinkily played by Carrie Paff , comes to the cabin to visit her brother, Sorn, with her lover, famous writer Trig, played by Johnny Moreno. Con, Emma’s ineffectual son played by Adam Magill, aspires to be a “new” kind of writer, while Nina, the untalented neighbor girl played by Martha Brigham, longs to be a famous actress. Sexual and creative one-upmanship ensues.
Con loves Nina; Nina wants Trig; Trig wants skirt — he simply can’t resist temptation. And while Emma professes love for her son and Trig, Paff embodies a grand collision of an overwhelming ego with the insecurity of an aging actress. The who-loves-who flow chart becomes even more muddled when Mash reveals she’s smitten with Con, and friend Dev confesses his hopeless love for the also depressed Mash. No need to keep track — none of the characters are in love with the correct person.
60-year-old Dr. Sorn, played by Charles Shaw Robinson, provides the Greek chorus perspective by confessing to a lifetime unclaimed by love. He knows he lived; of his 40s he tells us he has proof, “There were tax returns filed.” But it’s clear that he feels passed by as he witnesses the conflicting passions around him. In one especially successful scene, the director punctuates this confession by having Sorn blow out a bluesy tune on a clarinet, ending with a reedy, bleating peal. Could it be the call of a gull?
Nina of course is the gull, she chooses it for its beauty and freedom as her spirit animal just moments before her performance as the sole actor in the play-within-a-play in the first act. The performance is a repetitious bit of spoken word, written and directed by Con and ends abruptly when the young writer shuts it down following a rude and critical outburst by his mother who watches it with friends. After the play, in a mania of disappointment and self loathing, Con shoots a seagull, and throws it at Nina’s feet. With this act of violence, the gull takes on a fatal significance. The bullet that brings down the bird is followed by other bullets, lost freedoms and disappointments in love and life. Oh that stupid f ing bird.
After scenes of dramatic tension, the actors occasionally come together to sound off face-front to the audience about their emotional lives and aspirations. These moments reveal widely disparate perspectives shouted out all at once or individually. The cacophony of voices demonstrates just how elusive love’s harmony can be. No one is on track to finding true love.
Johnny Moreno delivers a fine performance as Trig. He’s a passable stand-in for Robert Downey Jr., and oozes celebrity. His character’s arrogance demands the attentions of as many women as possible, while convenience and insecurity in equal measure keep him enslaved to Emma’s orbit. He is without conscience and without guilt. In scenes where Nina throws herself at him, Trig is hilarious. The struggle between his desire and celebrity-cool self-control ends delightfully in runaway libido.
Carrie Paff, as Con’s mother, Emma, remains fairly faithful to Chekhov. She first appears on stage, perfectly styled by costume designer Abra Berman, in iconic jodphurs and boots — a visual nod to Kristen Scott Thomas’s character in the film tragedy, “The English Patient.” Designer Berman seems to be saying “Beautiful but deadly. Where she goes unhappiness follows.” Emma’s self-obsessed, ice princess demeanor is proof positive that she has emotionally abandoned her son.
Emma’s intermittent verbal abuse and mistreatment of Con trigger his basic insecurity. Their tense and hateful scenes reveal the sad truth of Con’s inability to love truly, or to be loved in return. And Con’s unhappiness abounds. He raves, throughout the performance — at Nina, friend Dev, his mother, and even at the audience. While his mania is well-acted, it makes empathetic response difficult for the audience. We’d rather laugh along with him, than look too deeply into this sad specimen. Con’s last scene with Nina is like every lousy break-up that ever was, except Brigham’s interpretation updates it brilliantly with Millennial angst.
In a welcome departure from Chekhov’s “Seagull,” happiness in love does bloom in Act 4, which takes place 4 years after the depressing events of Act 3. We learn an unexpected marriage and children have occurred, recounted in a lovely duo of fine voices (I won’t tell whose), accompanied by the strains of a ukelele and appropriately sweet and affectionate body language. It’s pure Romcom, but only for an instant.
For those familiar with “The Seagull,” the finale will not be a complete surprise, but this modern interpretation is powerful in its own right. There is an especially satisfying summing up of all the characters that includes novel and comic touches.
To all you Google Bus riders out there, don’t get on the coach tonight. Consider staying in San Francisco to take your honey to a night of cocktails and fine theater at the Playhouse.