The fourth wall has been broken beyond repair — but postmodern characters can put up layers of subtext as they retreat across the stage. Anton Chekhov was a pioneer of theatre-about-theatre, so it’s only fitting that a few extra degrees of nesting narrative be layered over his classic The Seagull in Aaron Posner’s rewrite, Stupid Fucking Bird.
Put on in the sprawling square-footage of Long Island City’s Plaxall Gallery, a donated warehouse, the dramatis personae feel like ghosts, and they seem to have passed from preoccupying Chekhov to haunting the house of Posner’s head. Updated to contemporary self-made stars and media wannabes, they are wearing dead characters’ names and straining against long-established structures.
Con, an artist (heh) is putting on an experimental one-woman show (whose one woman is his girlfriend, Nina) on the home stage of his famous mainstream-actor mom Emma, who’s there with her legendary-novelist boyfriend Trigorin, her doctor brother Sorn and two of Con’s friends Dev and Mash. The oedipal, um, con-flict between avant-garde son and marquee mom spills over into the son’s play and sweeps it away when it has barely started; we are left with the unwritten drama (dashed ambitions, romantic parallelograms) that each character thinks they’re the hero of.
Chekhov may have been chasing the inner narratives we conceal behind the camouflage of polite conversation, but Posner understands that his own century is one in which consciousness of an audience is almost never switched off. This is a smart basis for the spectator-address that inevitably crosses the fictional line the players are performing behind. Of course monologue is futile (though still fun) because we’re long accustomed to soliloquy and we know we can already see everything the characters don’t want us to. But since that doesn’t stop all of them from trying to manage everyone else’s feelings, the motif of Con or Mash turning outward to ask us how they should live or command us how to react magnifies the sense of natural disarray and endlessly desired but forever unattainable control.
The characters indeed barge in on each other’s audience confessionals, and at times submerge back completely into the play they know best; a middle section with cast and audience led into the spacious art center’s narrow galley pushes them into literal kitchen-sink drama, but even then some characters turn to us; this story wants followers, and its players are fighting a losing resistance against the dissolving screen of their personal fantasy.
Posner himself is fording a tidal pull between the material’s deep despair and its comic possibilities; there’s a tension that stays bravely but sometimes distancingly unresolved. Particularly at the end, the script dares itself to dance to the cliff’s-edge of doomed-lovers bathos and is repeatedly pulled back by the 200-percent commitment of Olivier Renaud as Con and Tana Sirois as Nina; consummate performers immersed in every emotion they plumb, they also keep mindful of the barriers that will never be crossed, onstage or off, in what we think we see.
Sirois is alternately heartbreaking and delightful as the easily-illusioned Nina, a bird lining up to be shot time after time. Renaud’s comic chops and related consciousness of dives from grace serve him well in a portrait of alternating hysteria and rage and dark blankness and pleading helplessness; both controlling and utterly out of, he’s like some virtuoso gene-splice of Jack Lemmon and John Cleese. David Leeper radiates melancholy insight and honest solitude as Sorn, and Donal Brophy is irresistible as the burrito of rakish remoteness and manipulative humility that is Trigorin. The kinetic direction (Adam Knight) and design (Paolo Martínez Fiterre on sets, Eric Goodman on lighting) — Con maintaining a rant up the concealed stairs, across the utility mezzanine and back out of a door at the opposite end of the space; a ghostly Nina knocking at the bay-door of the (serendipitously maritime) warehouse, lit from behind by bilious harbor lamps that come on by the time night has fallen on the play — make well-conceived use of both frame and free-range, the predestined and the unpredictable, in this porous play (or “whatever it is,” as several characters successively say).
Toward the end, a jaded and traumatized Nina describes her high but hollow stardom, confessing that she can’t say anything that’s true onstage — a paradox that sums up this whole production’s veils of reality and displacement of feelings. On the globally-networked world’s collapsed horizon and under its threatening sky, Stupid Fucking Bird soars low, and sees a good amount to salvage.
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