Ah, the adaptation. Sarah Ruhl’s practically made a career out of them and lately, everyone from Suzan Lori Parks to Ben Jolivet is getting in on the action. Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, the latest from The Wilbury Theatre Group, is touted as a ‘sort of’ adaptation of Chekov’s The Seagull. It dances between the world of the play and the realm of reality, rife with fourth wall breaks, asides and ukulele ballads. This play could have been a pretentious evening of self-congratulating wink-wink meta-theater, but in the hands of Mark Peckham and the Wilbury Group, Stupid Fucking Bird is a hilarious and unpredictable ride.
So, full disclosure, I’ve never seen or read The Seagull. Thus, Wikipedia is where my knowledge of the source material begins and ends. (Whatever, fight me.) Stupid Fucking Bird, as in The Seagull, follows the intrepid Con (Josh Short) as he attempts to succeed as a director and win the approval of his mother, Emma (Melissa Penick) and the love of his muse, Nina (Shannon Hartman). When the famous writer Trigorin (Brien Lang) comes to see Con’s play, Nina becomes enamored with his fame and prestige, leaving Con to stew in miserable, broke-ass obscurity. Sounds like a pretty heavy show, right?
Stupid Fucking Bird is the most fun you can have with late 19th century Russian theater. Mark Peckham has staged a transparent, anti-theater production with the dressing room fully visible from the audience and actors pulling double duty as stage crew. Even the booth is on stage, giving the audience the privilege of seeing live tech at work. The staging supports the atmosphere of self-aware meta-theater where characters are fully conscious of the play they are in. It’s rendered in simplicity and blurs the line between where the play begins and ends.
The meta-theatricality of SFB is definitely the appeal. Masha (Rachel Dulude) promptly tells the audience to shut up after one of her songs about the futility of existence. There’s lots of inbuilt theater jokes, some Chekov jokes, and several opportunities to deprecate Wilbury and their space at Trinity Church. At one point, the house lights come up and Con directly asks the audience what he should do to get Nina back. After some hesitation, the consensus seemed to be that he should write her a song. I was going to say pizza.
In terms of drama, it’s a play of triangles. Con loves Nina who loves Trigorin. Mash loves Con but settles for Dev (Andrew Iacovelli). Emma loves Trigorin but has trouble showing affection for her own son. It makes for a lot of swearing, a couple bullet wounds, and a healthy dose of on-stage sex. SFB is a remix, a commentary, but the center holds and the drama is real.
In a rare appearance, Wilbury’s artistic director, Josh Short, leads the pack as Con. Short develops from a neurotic, well-meaning director to a believably unstable, suicidal wreck over the course of the play. Rachel Dulude simply rocks as the despondent, ukulele wielding Mash, and for my money has some of the best comedy in the show. Melissa Penick delights as the boozy Emma and Andrew Iacovelli approaches Dev with subtle humanity, which turns what could be a hapless, moronic character into a lovable hapless, moronic character. As Trigorin, Brien Lang indulges in elitist intellectual douchery (in a good way). Shannon Hartman flips a bird to the typical ingénue and in a particularly memorable Act Three, turns on a dime and produces some real madness as Nina. And I can’t forget Vince Petronio, who from his first entrance has the audience in the palm of his hand as Dr. Sorn.
Stupid Fucking Bird is Wilbury at its best. No other company in the state is doing shows like this, and few could approach this play with such understanding and tact. It’s irreverent, it’s dark, it’s funny, it’s deep, it’s punk as fuck. You don’t wanna miss this one.
Stupid Fucking Bird runs thru February 6; The Wilbury Theatre Group, 393 Broad St, Providence.