Anton Chekhov’s encapsulation of human drama in “The Seagull” has long been considered a classic depiction of how miserable human beings can make themselves and each other over matters of love and intimacy. It is one of those plays that you read in awe as a college student and then hope to see performed as well as the script deserves.
Playwright Aaron Posner says he had that kind of regard for the play when he decided to update Chekhov’s classic. His play, irreverently entitled “Stupid Fucking Bird,” has been critically praised since its premier in Washington, DC, in 2013. Since then, it has become a favorite in theater circles, having received the 2014 Charles MacArthur award as best new play. What Posner has done with the Chekhov classic might be considered sacrilege by purists and traditionalists, but over 100 years have passed since “The Seagull” premiered, and while human nature hasn’t changed, society’s attitudes have. Those changes are what Posner attempts to capture in his play.
If like me, you have long admired Chekhov’s play and are curious about what could be done to re-imagine, if not improve, it, you need to see the Capital Stage production of Posner’s play, which opened this past weekend on the organization’s mid-town stage. Directed by Michael Stevenson, the company’s producing artistic director, the production is first-rate in every respect. If you don’t like Posner’s adaptation, it won’t be because of the quality of the production.
And if you are not familiar with the Chekhov play, you may even have more reason to see this production because it is just plain great theater, loaded with humor and yet colored by the kind of pathos that leaves you feeling that you have just seen real people, even if they are intended as stereotypes.
We meet them all in the first act. Con is a young man struggling to find a measure of success in his craft and approval from his mother (not necessarily in that order). He is also carrying a torch for Nina, a would-be actress who is not easily wooed by Con (especially after she gets star-struck). Emma is Con’s mother. She is a vain starlet who is just on the downside of what may have been not quite so great a career as she wishes it had been. She is having an affair with Trigorin, an accomplished author, who is enjoying his success in every way a self-possessed cad can. Rounding out the group are Dr. Sorn, Emma’s older brother (at whose home the play is set), Dev, Con’s long-time friend who has simpler, yet still unmet, needs, and Mash, the disgruntled woman whom Dev is desperately trying to get to love him.
Over the course of the play’s three acts, the seven characters interact in various couplings, in something akin to a soap opera narrative. In this respect, Posner’s script generally follows Chekhov’s plot. But Posner keeps the dialogue racy (F-bombs are everywhere), and director Stevenson engages in some bold staging with two scenes of partial female nudity. It’s all entirely appropriate to the script, as are the audience interactions that at several points move the action along.
I’ll readily confess that I am rarely disappointed by the productions at Cap Stage, but this one merits special praise. And since I’m on that subject, let me specify some.
The play is presented in three acts. (An intermission separates the first and second; the second and third are continuous with only a set change interrupting the performance.) Each act requires a separate set design, so let me start my praise there, because in designing the sets for each act, Timothy McNamara has really done some wondrous work. The first act takes place in a backyard of Dr. Sorn’s home, where a small temporary stage has been constructed. The second act is played out in the kitchen of the same home. And the third is performed in a different part of the yard, with scenery denoting a pending birthday party. Mr. McNamara is new to Cap Stage. He was previously the Theatre Design Director at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla. My guess is that he’s found a new home in Sacramento, as his work should command the attention of the many companies that require the services of a skilled creative technician.
But as impressive as the sets are, it’s the acting that deserves the most attention in this production. The cast is a true ensemble, with all seven roles (most of them take-offs on those in Chekhov’s play) fully developed. Con is the central character, and he has a pivotal scene in the third act that can either make or break the play’s gravitas. And Ian Hopps (new to Cap Stage) handles it perfectly. Brittni Barger, as Nina, is also excellent, especially in her scenes with Trigorin, when she is more than willing to be his sex-mate. And as Trigorin, Jason Kuykendall shows his character’s shallow side in his willingness to cheat on his lover in favor of a younger seductress. He plays the role of a cad as if he really is one. Also impressive as the fading starlet who is too self-centered to realize the adverse effect she has had on her son is Rebecca Dines as Emma.
So that’s four great performances, but there are three more. As Con’s friend, Dev, Jouni Kirjola (now a Cap Stage vet after excellent performances in “Love and Information” and “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play”) is really wonderful, at times providing comic relief, at others showing all the angst a lovelorn guy can feel. And Wenona Truong (a Cap Stage apprentice) is just terrific as the young woman Dev pines after. She hates life (as only a disenchanted idealist can), and she sings (while playing the ukulele) at several key points in the play to prove it. Peter Mohrmann, one of the company’s co-founders, rounds out the cast as Dr. Sorn. Mr. Mohrmann has delivered many excellent performances over the years (his pawn shop owner in David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” still resonates for me), but he delivers a perfectly understated performance in this production.
The production is also elevated by the music of Noah Agruss (a veteran of B Street Theater) and Ed Lee’s always excellent sound design. Rebecca Ann Valentino designed the costumes, Glenn Fox is credited for the lighting design, and Emi Teixeira worked out the furniture and appliances (essential components in the production).
Posner’s play might not be for everyone. Those offended by the uttering of four-letter expletives and the baring of female breasts may want to avoid it. But if you are a fan of great theater and want to see one playwright’s vision of an updated classic, this production should not be missed.
Performances of “Stupid Fucking Bird” continue at the Capital Stage Theater through June 3. Tickets and information are available at the theater box office (2215 J St.), by phone (916-995-5464) or online (capstage.org).