The inaugural production of Dobama's 60th season is a perfect fit for the theater's experimental, risk-taking approach of Off-Broadway entertainment, and those arriving for this production of Aaron Posner's acclaimed Stupid F**king Bird should expect to leave with laughs, shock, some sorrow and a twinge of bewilderment: in essence, everything that makes contemporary theater so poignantly passive-aggressive and marvelously mature.
An astute student of the theater landscape, with experience in teaching, directing and writing for the stage, Posner takes Chekhov's The Seagull and distills it into its most essential pieces for a coherent story, then takes those elements, puts them in a metaphorical blender and shakes things up for an experience that not only acknowledges the fourth wall, but obliterates it. And all this with source material that was already theatrically meta to begin with.
It's a novel idea that adds another level to the performance, as even in the script it states that the actors must accept that there is simply "more than one reality" happening at the same time. What results is sort of the Drunk History of transformative theater. Believe us when we say that it's a lot more intriguing than it may sound on paper.
Director Nathan Motta embraces the self-referential nature of this play with plenty of subtle nods to the original material as well as pacing that can be best described as controlled chaos.
And, in a physical example of that narrative gambit, Chekhov himself is present for the evening, his mug plastered on a gargantuan pin-up, one of the many pieces by scenic designer Laura Tarantowski and props designer Vanessa Cook. The massive face moves in the background of the action with each passing act, almost taunting the characters distilled from his work.
Speaking of the characters, there are enough similarities to Chekhov's original story — Conrad (Joseph Lyne Dunn), 'Con' for short, struggles as an aspiring playwright in a one-sided relationship with the flippant Nina (Sarah Durn). Success and pride loom over Con's head as his mother Emma (Laura Perotta) disapproves of his pretentious attitude and dour demeanor, which is partly due to Con's resentment of her and the advances on his girlfriend by Emma's lover Doyle Trigorin (Josh Innerst), a more successful writer who embodies what Con wishes to be.
Helping Con through his relationship and life problems is his oddball friend Dev (JP Peralta), who is going through his own issues with his partner Mash (Sara Young), who has unrequited feelings for Con. Trying to keep the peace is Emma's brother Eugene (Michael Regnier), an aging doctor who never ceases to be astounded by the constant pandemonium.
As Con anguishes over events both justifiable and frivolous, he asks himself— as do other characters throughout in out-of-body monologues— what the point is of moving on with life and existence in general.
Like the characters in Stupid F**king Bird, the script has some flaws. Oftentimes when a story focuses on someone questioning the meaning of existence, "deep thoughts" come off as anything but, and this script is no exception. By no fault of the cast, the conversations arising from this struggle ride dangerously across the line between being thoughtful and preachy.
Nonetheless, the ensemble cast does an amazing job of keeping these scenes from being solely sanctimonious. Dunn himself feels picture-perfect for the neurotic lead with a presence that demands attention. Alongside Perrotta, their moments together as a bickering mother and son are some of the most relatable and engaging scenes in the production. Perrotta herself also commands adoration with an irresistibly sensuous appeal.
Another impressive pairing is Peralta and Young, playing off each other's respective awkwardness and passive-aggressiveness. Even at her age, Young carries herself with poise well beyond her years, while Peralta is instantly likable from his first moments on stage.
Innerst excels at portraying the middlebrow writer, smarmy yet approachable with an air of cockiness that steals several scenes. Regnier shares this showmanship as Eugene with an impeccable sense of comedic timing. Durn, meanwhile, fills the position of a generic ditz with surprising depth and warmth.
Suffice to say, those with varying degrees of theater knowledge will find different things to enjoy in Stupid F**king Bird. Those coming in with fresh eyes will enjoy the engaging love triangle and dark humor juxtaposed with equally dark subtext. Those familiar with Chekhov's work will appreciate how Posner has taken The Seagull and turned it on its head. It's a reimagining that's hard to imagine being better handled than by the folks at Dobama, who take this wild idea and roll with it. For those looking for something fresh and different, Stupid F**king Bird promises to take its audience on a ride that they'll never f**king forget.