Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Posner includes all of Chekhov's main characters and themes from The Seagull, which focuses on creative angst and love, both fulfilled and unrequited, and the mostly failed relationships and unsuccessful artistic endeavors that result from them. Struggling writer Conrad just wants to impress his mother, the somewhat successful actress Emma. But the fact that Conrad's muse, the young aspiring actress Nina, whom Conrad loves, is falling for the seductive famous writer Trig, who just happens to be Emma's young lover, complicates matters. Add in Mash, who pines for Conrad, and Dev, who is in love with Mash, and you have a chain of lovers who all yearn for the love of someone else.
Posner also adds a huge dollop of self-reference into the piece, including having Conrad announce that he has written a play called Stupid Fucking Bird and having the actors break the fourth wall to talk to the audience at numerous times, and commenting that they know they are in a play. But this play within a play element never plays out to fruition and some of Posner's ideas, including a lip-synched song, while interesting, fall flat and don't really add much to the thrust of the play. While the self-referential component of the piece runs the risk of becoming precious or pretentious, it fortunately never does. However, it also doesn't add anything to the overall play. If Posner is trying to be funny, he is, but having the characters tell us that they know they are in a play and then proceeding onward with their individual character arcs and never having this element return to have any relevance is just lazy, awkward, and ultimately meaningless.
Fortunately, Stray Cat's cast is exceptional and they create realistic, identifiable characters, even though they are almost all so miserable that you never truly care for them. As Conrad, the tortured playwright, Phillip Herrington excels in portraying a man who is searching desperately for success and acceptance in both love and in his art, but struggling further when he finds that achieving success in either escapes him. Shari Watts is just as good as Conrad's mother, an aging actress who is extremely selfish and always wants to be the center of attention. Her snarky comments throughout are well delivered, especially when she interrupts Conrad's play, thinking it is a criticism about the types of plays she acts in.
Courtney Weir instills the role of Nina with a lovely sense of youthful naïveté. Louis Farber and Melody Knudson are excellent as Dev and Mash, creating characters that, while still tortured, add plenty of humor and even a few fun songs to the play. As Trig, Wyatt Kent is charming, smooth, and seductive and Charles Sohn is compassionate as Conrad's uncle, Emma's older brother, Sorn.
Director Ron May infuses the proceedings with a deep sense of empathy and elicits rich performances from his cast. He knows how to mine laughs from the pathos of the characters and situations yet also makes the dramatic scenes sizzle. Eric Beeck's set design is quite lovely, representing at first an outdoor setting with a performance area and also the interior of Emma's home. Jeff A. Davis' lush lighting is evocative while Maci S. Hosler's costumes add individual nuance to each character.
Full of angst and irony and characters who are "lost in love and dismally disappointed," as Mash states at one point, Stupid Fucking Bird will probably best be enjoyed by those who are familiar with Chekhov's play or those who appreciate Posner's irreverent take on the material and self-referential view of itself. Chekov himself spoke of new forms of theatre, and Posner also has Conrad lament this need to "open new possibilities." I just wish Posner had been able to find a way to truly pull all of his ideas together to truly create this new form of theatre that Chekov spoke of so many years ago.
Stupid Fucking Bird at the Stray Cat Theatre runs through March 26th, 2016, with performances at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480 227-1766 or at straycattheatre.org.
Written by Aaron Posner