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The giddy wildness in Stupid F***ing Bird
It's like we're seeing two worlds at the exact same time.
There's a moment in the Pearl Theatre Company's production of Stupid F***ing Bird -- Aaron Posner's lively deconstruction of Chekhov's The Seagull – where we leap forward several years. Two characters – Dev and Mash -- who seemed incompatible have instead gotten married, and they explain their state by singing a wistful song. Dev plucks a tiny banjo while they croon, and as they stand near the foot of the stage, it seems they've removed themselves from the romantic turmoil and existential angst that has torn through the rest of the show.
Except maybe they haven't. Because while Dev and Mash are singing, Conrad is literally climbing the walls. A passionate (if pretentious and inexperienced) theatre maker, he's been calling for radical new art forms and pining after Nina, an aspiring actress. He's so fiery (or hysterical) that he even tries to shoot himself when he thinks the world can't meet his expectations, and whenever he's onstage, he sparks with dangerous potential.
And so during the sweet little ditty, Conrad clambers over the set, screwing in individual bulbs on various strings of party lights. With Dev and Mash providing the soundtrack, his simple task somehow becomes momentous.
These scenes don't interact with each other directly – Con doesn't sing; Dev and Mash don't acknowledge him – yet they inform each other all the same. They prepare us for the play's raucous final stretch, when romances, ego trips, and the hunger for transcendence finally cause explosions. These colliding scenes clarify that everything we notice – every person, every space – is shaping everything else.
That's no accident. As director Davis McCallum says, "When [Dev and Mash] do the second chorus – which is about 'on and on and on we go' – I felt like we wanted to focus on how you have to put one foot in front of the other. When you get knocked off your feet, like so many of the characters have by that point, you have to find a way to keep going. And I liked those bulbs going up one at a time and it being about the three of them. Because at some point the song has to not just be about the two people singing, but about all the circumstances that are going to lead to the third act."
This moment is also about the audience. Whereas Chekhov's script probes the clash between 19th-century melodrama and the metaphorical experiments of Symbolism, Posner's update stages a battle between realism and metatheatricality (or plays that acknowledge themselves as plays). The latter style inevitably addresses the crowd, trying to remind us that we're part of a present-moment experience. And if we're aware that Con is turning on lights for whatever comes next, or that two people are singing to us about their relationship, then we might feel more deeply involved in what's happening.
There's a similar spirit in the set, which is designed by Sandra Goldmark. Though the action unfolds in Con's family home, there's no attempt to create a "real" house. Sure, we might see a sink and a fridge where the kitchen's supposed to be, but we'll also see the exposed back wall of the building and tables full of props on the sides on the room. And we can't overlook the panels that have "Stupid Fu***ing Bird" painted on them in giant white letters (only minus the asterisks).
"We're seeing the exact people in the room and the exact stuff in the room that were needed to tell the story," McCallum says. "We just wanted to be bold and frank and put everything up there for what it was."
"Boldness" doesn't necessarily mean "aggression," though. "At first I thought, 'Oh, there's a certain punk rock frustration underneath the play,'" McCallum recalls. "Con says, 'No more plays where nothing really happens!' So we designed a space that was really a wild mess. Just junk all over the place.
"And I thought, 'This doesn't feel quite right.'
"It's more that the play is kind of mischievous and cocky, but it's not out-and-out hostile. That's a balance that we continually have to strike, especially when people are talking to the audience. Characters tell the audience to shut up. I think someone even says, 'F*** you' to the audience. But it's done in a way that's an invitation to play. You want to make sure that anyone of any taste or background feels free to play along and really experience what's unfolding."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for Stupid F***ing Bird. Go here to browse our current offers.
Follow Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Russ Rowland. Top photo: Dan Daily (as Sorn), Christopher Sears (as Conrad), and Joe Paulik (as Dev)