Aaron Posner’s sideways tribute to Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” called “Stupid F##ing Bird,” can be funny and fascinating when not tedious and droning.
Chekhov is one of the greatest playwrights of all time and “The Seagull” one of his most admired works. Posner is one of the most prolific adapters in modern theater, having converted works by novelists Chaim Potok and Ken Kesey while also putting his touch on works by Shakespeare. He’s turned Chekhov adaptations into a personal cottage industry, having doused “Uncle Vanya” (“Life Sucks”) and “ Three Sisters” (“No Sisters”) with his unique touch.
“The Seagull” isn’t done much. It’s not necessarily hard to produce, just hard to pull off. There’s an intentional subtlety to the work that can be elusive. We watch people hanging out talking about their feelings. The “action” takes place off stage. “SFB” has all that and more.
There’s no need to be familiar with the original to enjoy “SFB”; the knowledge only encourages a sense of loss, which may or may not be intentional. Much of the opening night audience laughed through the first act as if their lives depended on it. Considering the white-hot popularity of “SFB” in regional theaters, it’s possible more people will see Posner’s 4-year-old phenomenon than ever see Chekhov’s 120-year-old masterpiece.
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The new “SFB” production at Capital Stage contains the full range of what Posner offers. “The Seagull” forms the basis of the play with its main plot points and characters intact, though the original whole gets somewhat smushed up. Director Michael Stevenson’s production flows seamlessly through the shifting tones, giving Posner the best presentation possible. Composer Noah Agruss wrote the graceful original music and song accompaniment.
Posner writes in his notes the characters are “real” people “living the story of the play” and also “characters in a play.” At a certain point you can’t help but think the characters doth explain too much. For those of you for whom audience participation is theater horror, be forewarned: The characters will ask you for answers. You might then be treated to an audience member who thinks the rest of the play requires his verbal input as well. Good times.
The production is outstanding on many performance levels, particularly the seven-person cast. Opening with drolly sour and deadpan Wenona Truong as Mash and Jouni Kirjola as the oppositionally optimistic Dev, there are sparks in every performance. Truong also beautifully sings a couple of clever little tunes.
Peter Mohrmann brings honesty and verve to his melancholy Dr. Sorn, a mashup of two characters from the original play.
Ian Hopps makes the annoying, aspiring writer Con continually watchable, while Rebecca Dines never flinches as his steely, successful actress mother, Emma. Jason Kuykendall’s silky Trigorin, an acclaimed writer and Emma’s lover, is a wonder of perfect restraint and guileless seduction.
Brittni Barger is Nina, the young actress who is Con’s muse and obsession but falls under the spell of Trigorin. Chekhov once wrote “To me, Nina’s part is everything in the play.” Barger is everything here, confident, naive and tragic while overcoming Posner’s efforts to hand us the play’s emotional content.
The design of play is simple and a little maddening. Dev loves Mash who loves Con who loves Nina who loves Trigorin. Con would also like some sort of mothering from Emma, but what nourishing she has to give also goes to Trigorin. For Trigorin, it’s all in a day’s work.
In this play love is hard, though the characters are really more obsessed with other characters or just obsessed with their obsessions than truly having deep affection for the other person. The so-called love has no chance of being returned, of course, which inflames passions more. The fruitlessness of the endeavors helps the play go on and on and on. The characters who admit to being happy must apologize for being so.
“SFB” isn’t “Seagull” dumbed down for a modern audience, though substantial nuance is lost in a certain glibness and reaching for low-hanging, jokey fruit. The play tells us it has something lofty on its mind, but we don’t know what that is. Its own plot concerns mostly middle-class WASPs gnashing their teeth over someone not loving them the way they want – well, c’mon, we already know the problems of three or four little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
There’s some stuff about “new theater” forms and art changing the world, but I don’t know. I saw the lights go down, the play started, then the lights came up at intermission; everybody went to the restroom, the lights went back down, the actors started again, then at the end they all took bows and everybody went out the lobby for wine and cookies.
The greatest moments of longing and despair in “The Seagull” are between a son longing for connection to his out-of-reach mother. They aren’t in “SFB,” though. Where one imagines Posner’s characters might break your heart, they break the fourth wall instead.
Editor’s note: This review was changed at 11:45 a.m. Thursday to add Chaim Potok’s name as a novelist whose work was adapted by Aaron Posner.
Stupid F##king Bird
What: The Capital Stage production of Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Michael Stevenson directs, with Brittni Barger, Rebecca Dines, Ian Hopps, Jouni Kirjola, Jason Kuykendall, Peter Mohrmann, Wenona Truong
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays through June 4
Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento
Cost: $28-$38. Student rush tickets are half-priced with valid student ID within one hour of performance
Information: 916-995-5464; capstage.org
Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission