Review: ‘Stupid Fucking Bird’ at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia

It was just two and a half years ago that the Arden Theatre presented a version of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters that used a fresh, slangy translation. It took a musty classic and made it feel up to date. Yet despite the modern language and modern dress, there was no mistaking that it was Chekhov’s work. It was accessible to a contemporary audience, but it was a respectful retelling of the master’s work.

Alex Keiper (Mash) and Greg Wood (Sorn). Photo by Mark Garvin.

Alex Keiper (Mash) and Greg Wood (Sorn). Photo by Mark Garvin.

Well, as you can probably tell by its title, there’s nothing remotely respectful about the Arden’s latest play, Stupid Fucking Bird. Playwright/Director Aaron Posner has taken Chekhov’s The Seagull and run it through a postmodern, post-theatrical shredder. The result is rude and crude – but startlingly emotionally resonant. You don’t have to know The Seagull to appreciate the liberties Posner has taken with it, but even if you do know Chekhov’s play, you’re bound to be surprised and delighted.

Stupid Fucking Bird concerns a roundelay of romantic and emotional entanglements amongst a group of family members and their friends gathered at a large beach house. Emma, a famous actress, is surrounded by her brother, her son Con, and assorted hangers-on. Timid Dev is in love with goth girl Mash (who dresses all in black because “I’m in mourning for my life”). But Mash loves playwright Con, who loves ambitious young actress Nina, who loves famous writer Trigorin, who loves Emma (remember her?).

All this unrequited love leave these people frustrated. At one point the characters all lie on a platform staring up into space, talking in short spurts about what they want in life: “I just want to be loved.” “I just want to shine.” “I just want him to look at me.” The characters make their emotional distress palpable, partly in dialogue, partly in monologues directed to the audience.

(Clockwise, from bottom) Cindy De La Cruz (Nina), Alex Keiper (Mash(, Aubie Merrylees (Con), Greg Wood (Sorn), Grace Gonglewski (Emma), Karl Miller (Trigorin), and Dan Hodge (Dev). Photo by Mark Garvin.

(Clockwise, from bottom) Cindy De La Cruz (Nina), Alex Keiper (Mash), Aubie Merrylees (Con), Greg Wood (Sorn), Grace Gonglewski (Emma), Karl Miller (Trigorin), and Dan Hodge (Dev). Photo by Mark Garvin.

But the show isn’t all Russian-influenced doom and gloom. There’s also a lot of anarchic, absurdist comedy. The dialogue is filled with hilarious lines, as the characters critique each other – and the play they’re in. Yes, these characters know that they’re in a play, and they comment on the relevance of theatre in the 21st century.

It’s Posner’s combination of extreme silliness and searing insight that makes Stupid Fucking Bird so engrossing. You may not like all of these self-absorbed characters (and some of them come off as much more unlikable here than in the original), but you’ll never be bored by them.

In the play’s published edition, Posner calls for the action to be staged “relatively fluid and rapid,” and this production (the first Posner has directed himself) lives up to that recommendation. Outbursts of aggressive rock music with Russian lyrics punctuate the scenes (James Sugg contributes the music). The actors run onstage during the first scene, full of energy and spirit.

The pace slows down a bit during the second act, as more serious plot developments take precedence over the more farcial tone of act one. And the presence of a dead seagull – the bird of the title – weighs things down at times. (Posner deals with the bird’s symbolic meaning a little too explicitly, but then again, so does Chekhov.)

Stupid Fucking Bird benefits from solid work by a richly talented ensemble. Aubie Merrylees bubbles with anxiety as Con, a tortured artist who demands too much from the world and gives little in return. Grace Gonglewski is fiercely determined as Emma, the diva who is not about to relinquish the spotlight. Karl Miller bristles with pride and pomposity as Trigorin, and Greg Wood projects a genial, erudite air to Emma’s brother, a doctor who does his own soul-searching in a less flamboyant way than the others.

Cindy De La Cruz gives Nina an off-kilter flavor that makes her intriguing. Dan Hodge’s Dev has an awkward edge in the early scenes, which makes his later reliability rewarding.

Alex Keiper (Mash), Greg Wood (Sorn), Karl Miller (Trigorin), Aubie Merrylees (Con), Dan Hodge (Dev), and Grace Gonglewski (Emma). Photo by Mark Garvin.

Alex Keiper (Mash), Greg Wood (Sorn), Karl Miller (Trigorin), Aubie Merrylees (Con), Dan Hodge (Dev), and Grace Gonglewski (Emma). Photo by Mark Garvin.

And Alex Keiper has an offbeat winsomeness as Mash, who channels her depression through a series of I’m-not-in-love songs on the ukulele. Keiper mopes around adorably, like she’s the love child of Zooey Deschanel and Morrissey.

The thrust stage and unfinished wooden surfaces, designed by Tim Mackabee, accentuate the production’s sense of intimacy. Thom Weaver’s lighting conveys a multitude of atmospheres and moods, from midday on the beach to a late night of the soul. And Katherine Fritz’s costumes are modern and casual without dipping into hipster clichés.

Stupid Fucking Bird is The Arden at its best. Don’t miss it!

Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.

Stupid Fucking Bird plays through October 16, 2016 at the Arden Theatre Company – 40 North Second Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 922-1122, or purchase them online.

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One Response to Review: ‘Stupid Fucking Bird’ at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia

  1. Jordan Levy October 3, 2016 at 12:32 pm #

    Excellent music by Dan Perelstein!!!