Regional Reviews: Chicago
Stupid Fucking Bird
More importantly, though, in the best possible way, a kind of "imposter syndrome" dogs the characters in our self-absorbed political state, exciting a steeped-in-caravan-tea Russian anger and anguish in the younger ones. And surprisingly, it also helps to heighten Chekhov's gift for personal confession.
Admirably pointing up the Chekhovian-ness of it all, they feel like imposters because no one knows where they're going, or barely even knows why they're here, in a Chekhov play. That's why he's fresh every night. Part of the playwright's natural absurdity is that you're in the spotlight, but you don't really know why. Still, this Americanization is nicely filled with warmth and charm and delight.
But all that Western likability is just like the cow on the railroad tracks. And the oncoming train of Chekhov's powerful storytelling charges as hard as ever under the direction of Luda Lopatina Solomon, in the Theater Wit performance space. Playwright Posner uses a lot of "direct address," which (in the case of the theatrical mother and playwright son on stage) gives us a deeper sense that they're all in way over their heads. But it also makes me want to see an even deeper layer of meaning.
In a way, The Seagull is the most personal thing Chekhov could have written about his life in the theatre. And yet people always take The Seagull at face value. Chekhov's own father was a doctor, and the father and son traveled together, as Chekhov himself trained to become a physician. And then his short stories, published in newspapers, became a sensation, evolving into plays: four of them full-length, which now embody his popular legacy.
But in a metaphorical sense, the art of the 19th century theatre, with all its tricks and betrayals, seems to become his spiritual mother–or his actual on-stage mother in this outing. In both The Seagull and the updated Stupid Fucking Bird, a trailblazing experimental playwright on stage wrestles hopelessly with the expectations of the traditional stage diva who bore him, and likewise wrestles for his own artistic truth. But the conflict is never fully personalized, physically, in any of the revivals I've seen. It suddenly seems like an autobiographical kind of mythology is at stake.
But no revival I've seen ever physically exploits this epochal rift in the art form between the old and the new. I'd like to see open directorial combat between the two, interrupting the initial play-within-a-play. Maybe (in some future production) the mother, who usually just sits and makes rude comments about her son's work, could get up there and battle with him to rearrange the ingenue in the middle of her highly impressionistic performance. Personally, I think someone should get an elbow to the chops in that dust-up, probably the ingenue, who never catches a break. The son and mother could use the opportunity to physicalize around the younger Nina's performance, and duke out the conflict between modern theatre and the popular theatre of their day. There's your free idea.
And, then again, I am sometimes guilty of reviewing the play that I secretly wanted to see instead.
The mother and son relationship as written still drives the son mad, in this engaging and entertaining update. And, once again, the "grand damme" mother becomes increasingly devoted to protecting her own legacy in the course of the two hour play, against the threat posed by her boy (and, perhaps, by his new theatre). Nicholas Barelli plays Con (Constantine), making him an artistic visionary burning at the stake in this greasepaint-Oedipal relationship. And Laura Sturm is excellent as the belittling, stagey mom. She's impossible not to like, as long as you can allow her Emma to get the biggest hand at the end.
In addition to director Solomon keeping all her actors in a state of perplexity, there is a wonderful movement director, Emil Thomas, and an intimacy choreographer, Elaine Brown. The three behind-the-scenes experts regularly physicalize Chekhov's agonized ruminations on desire and chaos, especially at one magical point when they turn the cast into a hypnotic line of seagulls themselves: floating on the winds of wanting, over a landscape of incomprehensible change. It gets very zen.
Magdalena Dalzell is delightful as Nina, the young actress caught between the two forces of theatre. Her second act speech about a lost child becomes the height of her performance, as a naturalistic lost child herself. David Fehr is every inch a celebrated 19th century playwright, as Trig (Trigorin in the original), and David Fink is excellent as a Vanya-like "Dev," hopelessly in love with the wrong person, as are nearly all of them (and as we also see in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya). Still, it's light and fresh in the through-line.
A pleasant air of intoxication comes from the beautiful fluidity of movement on stage and from the outdoor scenes full of cricket and frog sounds (Chekhov despised these in his first Moscow production, but I like them, so we can chalk one up for the old theatre of his spiritual mother, I suppose). Dana Muelchi is very Russian as the melancholy Mash, and she and Mr. Fink get some entertaining musical numbers–and a much happier marriage than in The Seagull, in act two.
Bob Pries is splendid as an amalgam of the doctor and the elderly brother of the stage diva. He shows a flair for heightening a spoken line by casually throwing it away, and in this performance helps to provide a template for the new theatre to come after Chekhov. (The characters of the country overseer and his wife are excised here.) Samantha Anne Rausch gives us a very lovely pair of sets, though the tiny edgings of the kitchen countertops in act two bedevil me to this very day. The costumes by Elizabeth Monti are 100% perfect.
Stupid Fucking Bird runs through December 9, 2023 at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont (about four blocks west of the "L" station), Chicago IL. For tickets and more information please visit www.bluebirdarts.org