Here’s a Chekhovian regret for you: Stupid Fucking Bird is gone

Cast of Stupid Fucking Bird, Edmonton Actors Theatre. Photo by Mat Simpson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Haven’t you ever watched yourself and got the vague feeling you’re a spectator in your own life instead of a participant? Or maybe a fictional character in something kind of meandering and plotless instead of something that gets you happier? 

Chekhov is there for you, my friend. And Stupid Fucking Bird, Aaron Posner’s contemporary re-imagining of (and homage to) Chekhov’s The Seagull really has your back. I saw the last performance Sunday of Dave Horak’s terrific Edmonton Actors Theatre production (which will sound like I’m just rubbing it in here if you missed it). But I can’t stop thinking about its uncanny insights into our frantic quest for mutual love, human connection, sustainable happiness — in all its absurdities. And the way we never stop feeling like we’re outside looking in, thwarted at every turn.

In fact, Con, Posner’s version of The Seagull’s Constantin — an aspiring playwright burning with frustration at the conventional in theatre — says“thwarted” over and over, in every possible permutation and combination, till the word loses all sense and becomes a goofy sound effect.

Stupid Fucking Bird, in a cheeky retrofit of the Chekhov, is the world seen through Con’s eyes;  he’s a thwarted character in this, his own play. And he stands outside to chat with us directly, asking for pointers on how to win the love of the elusive Nina (Zoe Glassman), an up-and-coming actor in love with the idea of her own fame. In fact, the play starts with Con telling us it isn’t going to start till someone says “start the fucking play.” And he waits till one of us does just that. Mat Simpson is absolutely compelling, start to finish.

In Stupid Fucking Bird, a title that strikes exactly the right note of sass and exasperation, is all about the absurdity of criss-crossed arrows of desire. Why don’t the right people love you back when you love them so intensely? Mash, played with amusingly pitch-perfect acid-tinged ennui by Paula Humby — her whole body can do one of those skeptical eye-rolls — is so smitten by Con she barely has time for the eager, friendly Dev (Ben Stevens) who’s besotted by her. At moments of extreme frustration, she takes to the ukulele and sings hilariously bleak ditties of her own device: “you’re hot, you rot, and then you’re done/ And where’s the part of this that’s fun….”  That sort of thing.

Dev’s unfailing attempts at hopefulness are consistently funny and touching, as Steven delivers them. He tries so hard; he’s thwarted so regularly.  He’s the one who tries to let Con down gently, but is too forthright not to tell him the truth. Will Nina ever love Con? Well, no.

Melissa Thingelstad is tremendously funny as Emma, the play’s Arkadina, famous grande dame actress, queen of the flamboyant ego, aware of her audience at every second. Thingelstad’s creation knows that noblesse oblige is merely a theatrical ruse. She sees through herself but carries on in spirited fashion anyway, just because it tickles her to be an Artist. And her relationship with her equally famous writer lover, played with worldly authority by Ian Leung in another of the play’s fine comic performances, has every kind of nuance of power and vulnerability.   

In this crowd of theatre people and writers, the only character who isn’t an artist is a doctor (Robert Benz). And he’s been foiled, not by love or God but by time. Pushing 60 and bemused by the frantic disappointments around him, he mixes himself a cocktail and muses that he wants to be 27 again. “I think I’m ready to do my late 20s really well now….”

I loved the mixture of ruthless upward mobility and fragility in Glassman’s Nina, who comes onto Trigorin relentlessly, gets her man and chance at stardom, and gets discarded by both in turn. Horak gets sharp, very funny and rueful, naturally detailed performances from all his actors.

Stephanie Bahniuk, who should be getting snapped up by theatre companies across town, designs a frankly fake bucolic space with astroturf, the classic Chekhov birch trees as playing areas, and an abstract wall of domestic cubbyholes.

It was a great show. I hope you saw it. And if you didn’t, now’s your moment to sample a Chekhovian regret for missed opportunity.

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