- Greggory Moore
I like metafiction and various ways of playing with/against convention as much as the next guy—more, probably—but these are dangerous games when you’re trying to get people to feel something. After all, the whole point of (for example) the alienation effect—a major component of Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, which is a sort of modernist retelling of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull—is to remind the audience that what they’re seeing is not real, that those people crying and dying onstage are just actors. That can be a helluva barrier to empathy.
But not an insuperable barrier. That’s part of the magic of such game-playing. Done right, such framing devices can extract the essence of empathy (or whatever the playwright means to get across) and deliver it to the audience through unexpected pathways, a trick that can increase the return on emotion. High risk, high reward.
Twenty-four hours later, I’m still unsure about Posner’s success on this score. But the fact that I’m still wrestling with it is a mark in his favor.
That compliment is not quite as backhanded as it sounds, especially in regards to the Garage Theatre’s production. First off, the cast is first-rate. I’m loath to single anyone out because of the solidness of everyone’s work. With both the most lines and the greatest range to deliver therein, Joey Millin is surely fab, but it really is the tightness of the ensemble that got me. Posner’s dialog is full of overlapping line and characters cutting each other off, along with some neat bits of speaking in unison, and every cast member seems in sync with every other from curtain up to finale.
Not a little of the credit here goes to director Matthew Anderson. Along with his ensuring that the script has been well understood by his cast, he (with an assist from movement coach Lis Roche) has done a notably fine job with blocking. Yes, at times the back of an actor’s head obscures another’s face—tough to avoid that if you’re going to work stage depth in the Garage’s tiny space (but the fact that the audience is seated on three sides means you no angle is consistently problematic)—the movement is almost always interesting, and the timing is always impeccable.
Because the Garage’s limited confines and thin walls (you will hear motorcycles driving down 7th Street at least a couple of times during a show there, that’s a guarantee) present a high degree of difficulty in truly transporting an audience (although they’ve managed it on occasion, such as with their world-premiere staging of Tom Stoppard’s Darkside a couple of years ago) Stupid Fucking Bird and its explicit reminders that you’re watching a play are not out of place.
Now, about those reminders…. Which reminds me: this is pretty deep in a review to have said nothing about the plot. Then again, the plot—what with being undercut by all those reminders—is not why you come to see a play like this. Chekhov himself said that The Seagull has “a great deal of conversation about literature, [and] little action”—and The Seagull is far more plot-driven than Stupid Fucking Bird, whose action concerns aspiring boundary-breaking playwright Con (Millin), who’s in love with aspiring actor Nina (Acacia Fisher), who is in love with a famous writer (Paul Knox) who is in a relationship with Con’s actor mother (Kate Felton), all while Con is loved by Mash (Nori Tecosky), who is loved by Dev (Seven C. Martin), all of which transpires on Con’s uncle’s estate (which I mention mostly so that Allen Sewell isn’t the only actor who shall remain nameless. That would be just rude). None of this is externally very interesting, serving more as the background qua launching pad for rumination on our struggles with love, desire, authenticity, and recognition.
And let’s not forget art-making, because Posner won’t let us. This is where knowing a little bit about The Seagull—not its plot, so much as its place in history—probably helps. With The Seagull, Chekhov was consciously breaking with some of the predominating theatrical conventions of his time (the play premiered in 1896), as well as creating a main character (Konstantin) who himself was a playwright trying to break with convention. By pounding through the fourth wall and employing other alienation effects—devices developed much more fully in the 20th century and that remain recognizably “unconventional”—Posner is working reincarnate that spirit of The Seagull (which today is a highly conventional piece of dramaturgy (partly because he helped to shape today’s dramatic conventions)) in his retelling.
But he may be working a bit too hard for that. In masterful hands, so much of what Posner’s going for can be grabbed without repeatedly telling the audience that we’re watching a play (I didn’t count, but the number of such reminders at least approaches double-digits). Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead is classic case in point, but even way back in 1921 Luigi Pirandello, in his Six Characters in Search of an Author, managed to perform the same kind of trick without beating us on the head with the wand the way Posner does in this 2013 work.
For all that, Stupid Fucking Bird does not fall flat. Ham-handed as his prestidigitation can be, Posner sends us away thinking about our own turn upon the stage that is all the world, about what it is we’re doing—inside and out—while we’re here, as well as just what “here” is. You won’t fly off from Stupid Fucking Bird with much feeling for the characters and story, but you’re likely to carry with you a feeling (about yourself, the world, art, what have you) nonetheless. And that is indeed a bit of magic.
STUPID FUCKING BIRD THE GARAGE THEATRE • 251 E 7TH ST (JUST OFF LONG BEACH BLVD) • LONG BEACH 90813 • 562.433.8337 THEGARAGETHEATRE.ORG • THURS-SAT 8PM • $15–$20 (THURSDAY TIX ARE 2-FOR-1) • THROUGH APRIL 29
(Photo credit: freshframefoto.com)