THEATER REVIEW: “Stupid Fucking Bird” @ Dobama by Roy Berko

Through Sun 9/20

The lights dim. Joseph Lyle Dunn, whom we later learn is portraying Conrad, the play’s protagonist, comes stage center and says, “The play will begin when someone says: ‘Start the fucking play.’” As if on cue, a member of the audience yells, “Start the fucking play,” and it does.

Yes, Stupid Fucking Bird is that kind of theatrical experience. It’s funny. It’s tragic. And it gets a marvelous production under the creative mind of Dobama’s artistic director, Nathan Motta, at Cleveland’s off-Broadway theater, which is now starting its 60th season.

Of the play, Motta says, “Stupid Fucking pushes the envelope, takes risks, asks hard questions of its audience, and yet it is chock full of love and humanity. These are the things that motivated Don Bianchi to start a theater in 1959 as evident in his lasting words, ‘Take the risk. We’re all in this together.’”

To fully understand Aaron Posner’s brilliant play, with the subtitle: SORT OF ADAPTED FROM THE SEAGULL BY ANTON CHEKHOV, the author’s stage notes need to be examined. The instructions on performances states, “THE ACTING: Should be very, very good: Emotionally grounded, deeply passionate, intention-driven and relatively realistic. Also funny. Pretty much like a really good Chekhov play. Only different… Everyone is grappling for the best way to express themselves all the time, to give words to their frustrations, and hopes, and rampant emotions. Therefore, words often come tumbling out before the thoughts are entirely formed.”

Posner continues, “The characters are real people. They are also characters in a play. They should all be fully invested in the reality of their lives in the play and the stakes are high and deadly serious. At the samemtime they know that they are in a play, that there is an audience out there.”

At Dobama’s opening night, during the pre-curtain speech, a member of the audience asked the director if a knowledge of The Seagull is necessary for an understanding of the play. Motta indicated that it wasn’t completely necessary. (Note: I would add that it isn’t necessary, but it helps to understand the genius of Posner’s creative approach to make Chekhov modern and relative.)

What’s it all about? “Kind, hopeful Dev suffers from an unrequited love for Mash, who composes cleverly despairing songs on the ukulele. Mash is desperately in love with Con, a passionate playwright who is deeply in love with Nina, his beautiful, vibrant muse, and childhood friend. Nina seems to love him back, until she becomes entranced by Trig, a literary star who happens to be dating Con’s mother Emma, a successful actress who is hopelessly commercial in the eyes of her son. With a dead bird, a gun, and a little help from the audience, Con might be able to win Nina’s heart again… or at least feed his own tentative, morbid creativity.” But don’t bet on it.

Sound like a 19th century melodrama? Yes. It was one of Chekhov’s many plays meant to show the frivolous nature of the Russian upper class. But in the ingenious adaptation writing of Posner, it works as a modern angst tale.

The play ends as it began, with a startling device. As stated in the script: Conrad [Pulling out a gun] “I shoot myself.” [He puts the gun to his head. Leaves it there a beat. Poised to pull the trigger. Tense silence. Then he suddenly aims it at a light above stage, fires, the light explodes. The cast is freaked, screams, maybe.] “I fucking shoot myself!” [The stage is tense…] “Or not.” [Quick beat] “Or…” [No one moves. They are bracing for a shot. Beat. Conrad turns to the audience]. “Stop the fucking play!” [Blackout]

The cast: Joseph Lyle Dunn (Conrad), Sara Young (Mash), Laura Perrotta (Emma), Michael Regnier (Dr. Eugene Sorn), JP Peralta (Dev), Sarah Durn (Nina) and Josh Innerst (Doyle Trigorin) each in their own way, are excellent, creating clear “real” people, nicely texturing their performances and grabbing and holding the audience’s attention.

The creative set design by Laura Carlson Tarantowski, lighting by Wes Calkin, projection design by T. Paul Lowry, sound design by Richard Ingraham, costumes by Tesia Dugan Benson, props by Venessa Cook and choreography by Casey Venema all greatly enhance the show.

Capsule judgment: As a person present at the very start of Dobama, I would say that Donald Bianchi, the theater’s founder, would approve and be delighted that “his” theater is still fulfilling “his” dream by producing the wondrous likes of Stupid Fucking Bird. Kudos to the director, technicians and actors for launching this glorious flight.

 The must-see Stupid Fucking Bird runs through Sun 9/29.  Call 216-932-3396 or go to dobama.org for tickets.

[Written by Roy Berko, member: Cleveland Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, International Association of Theatre Critics]

 

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