BWW Review: Tampa Repertory Theatre's Production of Aaron Posner's STUPID F**KING BIRD
"I don't like when somebody comes up to me the next day and says, 'Hey, man, I saw your play. It touched me; I cried.' I like it when a guy comes up to me a week later and says, 'Hey, man, I saw your play...what happened?'" --Jeff Slater (Bill Murray) in "Tootsie"
What exactly is Aaron Posner's STUPID F**KING BIRD? Is it a reimagining of The Seagull, perhaps Anton Chekhov's most famous work--a playful deconstruction of its characters, motivations and symbolism? Is it a satire? A mere updating of a classic? Or is it a breaking-the-fourth-wall experiment, some sort of Pirandello swan dive (or seagull swoop) into the Land of Chekhov? After the Tampa Rep production, while I was exiting Studio 120, a thought overwhelmed me, a thought that I actually enjoy having after a show, one that makes me think of the above Tootsie quote: What the f**k did I just see?
I adore the original Seagull; if I could have my own Doc Brown DeLorean time machine, I wish I could venture back to 1898 to see the famous Stanislavski-directed Moscow Art Theatre production of it. It's one of those works that lives up to its status as a classic (even though it was a disaster when it first opened in 1896). But if you don't know it, if you haven't read or seen it, I wonder how well you will enjoy STUPID F**KING BIRD. Will you get the allusions, the characters, the importance of each incident; or will you be lost, like a viewer who watched the final episode of Game of Thrones without viewing the previous seven seasons? Although STUPID F**KING BIRD works in its own right, it certainly helps to know its source material.
With STUPID F**KING BIRD, the plot of The Seagull is still there, acting as sort of the spine of the play, but Posner's work is so much more. It's both serious and goofy, a celebration and put-down. It protects the Chekhov legacy and in a way throws it all out the window. It's true to the source material, and yet it sticks its tongue out at it at the same time. Here's what we have: Take Chekhov's iconic play and subtract several characters; add elements of Six Characters in Search of an Author; also add much improv and banter with the audience; and finish it off with a plethora of four letter words and ukulele tunes. It may not all add up in the end, but it's a hell of a lot of fun as we try to put together the equation.
The cast comes out and talks directly with the audience. (If you don't like this sort of thing, this audience-is-part-of-the-experience type of show, then you're going to hate it here; this show is not for everyone.) Nick Hoop, who plays Con, watches from the sides, looking dour and dispirited. He shoots a bird with his middle finger at an audience member, one of two birds he will shoot that night (this one and a literal one, a demented gift to his love, Nina). The cast then stands in a straight line, like they're ready for a set-up at a night at the Improv, and Hoop says, "The play begins when someone says, 'Start the f**king play.'" Thankfully, someone (one of the directors) did say, "Start the f**king play," and the show immediately began. I wonder what would happen if the director wasn't there, and no one in the audience was brave enough to utter those words.
I didn't know what to expect, but when I didn't hear the famous first line of The Seagull ("Why do you always wear black?"), but instead heard Dev and Mash's comments about wearing black ("Black is slimming"), as if the famous first-line question had been stated offstage, I realized I was in for a wondrous Chekhov-peppered treat. This is the type of show where the lead character wears a white t-shirt with Chekhov's portrait on it. After seeing this, I want to see this same cast in a production of the actual Seagull.
STUPID F**KING BIRD needs a perfect cast, one adept at improv, and here's where Tampa Rep really comes through. Nick Hoop is pushing his way to the forefront as our area's young leading man. From last year's A View from the Bridge to this year's harrowing turn in Columbinus and quirky work at the Tampa Fringe with Wallace & Women, he is capable of anything. His Con, the tragic young playwright obsessively in love with Nina, is not a likable character, but he is heartbreaking to watch as he's caught in a kind of emotional blender. It could easily be a one-note performance, like the plucking of a single string on a uke for two and a half hours, but Hoop is unpredictable, fierce, and brings so many levels to this difficult character. His banter with the audience is quite fun to watch, as opposed to Con's slide into despair, which is devastating even in a show where there is so much humor.
I don't think you can find a better Dr. Sorn than Jim Wicker, in either the original Seagull (where the part is called Sorin) or in this version. His emotional, martini-fueled monologue in Act 2 was perhaps the show's highlight and showcases Mr. Wicker's tremendous acting chops. He's so good here, the rock of the play, that we naturally gravitate towards him. And what he does with a lifesaver--a simple gesture--is comic gold.
Adam Workman plays Trig, the famous writer, appropriately pompous. At times he looks and sounds like a young Stephen Sondheim; but Sondheim's pomposity (as seen in various interviews) is well-earned while Trig's is just annoying. We see Trig's motives from the very first instant that he touches Nina, so there's not a lot of depth or discovery here. Since there's nowhere really to go, his interest in the young actress seems like a long journey on a short road.
Giselle Muise is well-cast as Nina, and her table-top performance of her "site-specific performance piece" is gloriously rendered. India Davison is fine as Mash, but I couldn't understand all of her lines due to some minor enunciation issues. Emilia Sargent as Con's actress-mother, Emma, is always stunning onstage, but it seems like she is relegated to a more supporting role here. Her heated love scene with Workman's Trig in Act 2 was extremely effective and memorable.
My favorite in the show is Ryan Bernier as Dev. Bernier has never been better; he's always strong whenever I've seen him onstage, but in STUPID F**KING BIRD he takes the show and runs away with it. His comic timing could not be better. He's so likably awkward that we root for him throughout. It's quite a strong cast, but Bernier emerges as the one I recall most fondly.
The directors, Connie Lamarca-Frankel and C. David Frankel, keep the show moving, the cast as chess pieces (donning black and white) on a blank board. Act 1 is more entertaining, more fun and games, while Act 2 drags a bit but is meatier. For some reason, Lea Umberger's seemingly simple set resembles a skateboard ramp. It's all white-on-white, seemingly unfinished. Umberger's costume designs ram the show's symbolism home--the white seagull look for Nina, the black garb for others, and the doctor in the middle (both black and white wardrobe). It's pretty obvious stuff. Jayce Bertucelli's lighting is serviceable, the lights coming up on the audience whenever the fourth wall was ready to be broken, which is quite often. Matt Cowley's sound design and Igor Santos' music work well.
James Sugg's songs are a major part of this show, and I guess they give us time to breathe, but they don't add much to the proceedings, sweet as they may sound. And the song crooned by the cast after the curtain call was a deadly mistake. It's not like these are classic tunes that we can all sing along with after a musical--like the company of Company singing "Company" at curtain call. This just made zero sense and confused the audience. The people who were giving STUPID F**KING BIRD a standing ovation didn't know if they had to sit back down or remain standing (which begs the question: do they take back their standing ovation by sitting down?). We're already bewildered at the play we just experienced, wonderfully so, but now we have to endure this--an unmemorable post-curtain call song without purpose. It's like someone in a commercial shouting, "But wait, there's more!" But then we find out that there isn't any more "more" there.
I'm still trying to make sense of the show, playing it over and over in my head, which is a great thing. Plays shouldn't be so cut and dry; they need to make us think, to haunt our dreams. And this is the type of show that elevates theatre in the Tampa Bay area; it's what Tampa Rep does best. Fascinating plays, brilliant scripts, all executed well. Even if the play itself doesn't gel overall, it's a don't-miss experience. Edgy, playful, well-acted, and best of all, intelligent. STUPID F**KING BIRD is one super-smart show.