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The thing that sets apart Aaron Posner's "Stupid F**king Bird," a contemporary riff on Russian writer Anton Chekhov's classic "The Seagull," isn't just that attention-getting title. The play is unusual in how it ignores the rules of structuring contemporary plays, says director William Missouri Downs.
The regional premiere plays Wednesday through May 1 at Salt Lake Acting Company.
Downs, a playwright and screenwriter whose romantic comedy "Mr. Perfect" played at the theater company last spring, considers "Bird" a self-contained unit. "There are really no insider jokes that the person who has read Chekhov's 'The Seagull' will get and you won't," he says. "You don't need to know anything about Chekhov to thoroughly get this play."
Most scripts follow a story formula. For example, Downs says, a young man falls in love with a woman and sets out against a sea of troubles. There is rising action, and he has a plan on how he's going to win her. He may fail at some points. He analyzes his life and he generally wins.
In contrast, Chekhov's plays didn't follow storytelling formulas, but were based more on the comic absurdity of everyday life. And then "Bird" sets out to upset those Chekhovian innovations.
Posner says he wanted to challenge theater-world notions about the Russian master and his 100-year-old plays, now considered classics. "What he was doing then was radical and revolutionary and exciting," Posner told writer Diep Tran in an American Theatre magazine story. "Doing Chekhov a hundred years later is the opposite of that."
"Bird" was commissioned by Washington, D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 2013, and the premiere was so wildly popular the company revived it with the original cast in 2014. The show has gone on to receive regional theater productions across the country.
Posner irreverently turns the classic "into a mirror that shows in crisp detail what is new about unhappiness today (we obsess about it a lot more), and what is timeless (love screws you up, life's a bitch, and then, well, you know)," wrote Charles Isherwood in The New York Times.
Not all critics have been enamored. "Bird's" a shallow riff, wrote Peter Marks in The Washington Post. And a March production at Portland's Center Stage was "three acts of neurotic moaning about the struggles of artists and the role of theater in a lengthy 'woe is me' rant that feels like artistic masturbation," according to Willamette Week writer Sophia June.
Downs is intrigued by the way the play jumps around among genres, even referring to itself as a new form of theater. "Suddenly, it's realism," says Downs, who has written four writing books, including "Naked Playwriting." "Suddenly, it's a monologue play. Suddenly, it's exposition that's obvious. Suddenly, it's audience interaction. It's presentational, and then it's no longer presentational anymore. This play breaks every damn rule."
The script includes a musical interlude that Downs and his cast have decided will be performed as a dream waltz. "The normal questions that I'm asked when I'm interviewed [for preview stories] don't apply," the director says. "It's written by one of the characters a deeply disturbed gentleman who has numerous psychological problems and can't figure out which story he wants to tell or how he wants to tell it."
In "Bird," Con (Alexis Baigue) is a tortured young writer whose muse, Nina (Anne Louise Brings), is an aspiring actor. His mother, Emma (Nell Gwynn), is a successful stage actor, while his lover is a famous writer, Doyle Trigorin (Terence Goodman), whom Nina falls in love with.
Baigue says he feels like something of an attorney for his character, whom he understands through his own romantic frustrations. "I honestly don't feel like he's crazy," Baigue says. "He's just an artist, really. I understand what it is to want one's art to make a difference and to be frustrated when it's not."
Every time the actor's heart has been broken in the months since he was cast in the play, "I just keep thinking this is good preparation for 'Stupid F**king Bird,' Baigue says. "I'm in agony because it's happened again. I guess it's just the theater gods who think this must be good for the play."
Brings refers to her character, Nina, as a lovely human being, even if her actions are sometimes despicable. The actor acknowledges her similarities with the character, which makes her feel vulnerable, as if she could very easily fall into "Nina-ville."
"Nina is a different version of me," Brings says. "Like her, I am a young actress. In some ways, her need for attention, her need to be noticed, really rings true for me, and it's not necessarily something that I'm proud of. Her optimism and her dreams end up not serving her well."
The actor loves the absurd humor of the play. She relates to it as part of the millennial generation, who she says are collectively burdened under the weight of student debt and uncertain job prospects. "It's a great adaptation," she says. "There's no question this is a funny show, but it's not a mockery. It still contains that Chekhovian seriousness. These characters are paralyzed in situations that they don't think could ever be remedied."
Justin Ivie, who plays Dev, a friend whose upbeat attitude contrasts with Con's tragic outlook, says the challenge of acting in the play is to find the balance being honest in embodying the characters while still mining the script's absurdity. "To allow yourself to be really vulnerable in a private way while still being completely aware you are in front of a lot of people is really interesting," he says. "These are literary characters who know they are literary characters. It creates a sort of an absurd, surreal and self-referential atmosphere that I think audiences will be interested in."
One of Con's lines is: "I just want things to be like I always imagined they can be."
"That certainly speaks to me and almost everybody who's going to see this play," Baigue says.
'Stupid F**king Bird'
Salt Lake Acting Company presents the regional premiere of playwright Aaron Posner's riff on Anton Chekhov's classic "The Seagull."
When • Previews Wednesday, April 6, and Thursday, April 7; opens Friday, April 8; continues Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday 1 and 6 p.m.; plays through May 1
Additional shows • Tuesdays, April 19 and 26, 7:30 p.m.; and Saturdays, April 23 and 30, 2 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15-$42, depending on performance (student, senior and 30 & under discounts); 801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org