‘Stupid Fucking Bird’ at 12 Peers Is Obscenely Good

Look, up in the sky, it's a seagull! This moment of wonder comes early in the play, before Conrad (Chris Cattell) and Nina (Sarah Chelli) get all worked up about the 'Stupid Fucking Bird.'

Look, up in the sky, it’s a seagull! This moment of wonder comes early in the play, before Conrad (Chris Cattell) and Nina (Sarah Chelli) get all worked up about the ‘Stupid Fucking Bird.’

There are many ways in which it is possible for theater to be good. Stupid Fucking Bird is good in an obscenely large number of them.

The play, at Pittsburgh’s 12 Peers Theater (through August 12), is a modern adaptation of The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. From the title you would think it’s an irreverent spoof of Chekhov’s classic, but the spoofing is aimed at other targets. Bird, for instance, satirizes earnest-but-bad art, just as Seagull did—this new version includes a couple of hilariously dreadful songs—and Bird is a fully loaded package in its own right. It’s funny but also moving. Thought-provoking, but more emotional than intellectual. And satirical but also, at other times, beautifully lyrical.

Bird is well written. The script, by American playwright Aaron Posner, juggles multiple themes and mood shifts brilliantly. The production by 12 Peers magnifies this brilliance. Director Vince Ventura and his cast and creative team have gotten the max from what’s in the script, while devising great touches that enhance it.

Therefore, rather than give you a standard review with a plot summary and scholarly nitpicks like the extent to which this seriocomedy honors the spirit of Chekhov’s original (quick answer: utterly, though in an utterly different style)—rather than that, I’ll just try to describe three things from scenes in Bird that struck me.

A Gothic Lament, Balletic Grace

The audience has barely settled in, and the play’s action just begun, when we are favored with a song from young Mash (pronounced “Mosh”). An aspiring singer/songwriter, she dresses severely in Goth black and carries herself with a scornful, sullen air. The song is called “Life Is Disappointing” and Mash’s lyrics do their best to disappoint:

“You’re born and then you live and then you die / You never get to know the reason why / You breathe and then you don’t, you’ve just begun / You’re hot, you rot, and then you’re done …”

In staging this type of scene, an obvious artistic choice would be to milk the comic-ironic humor by singing the song woefully off key. But contrast works better. Sara Ashley Fisher, who plays Mash, has a stellar voice. When she warbles the lugubrious lyrics pitch-perfectly, while strumming a ukulele, it brings down the freaking house.

In a more serious vein: The 12 Peers team has inserted into Bird some interludes in which characters interact without speaking. Instead they move, touch, entwine, and glide in choreographed mime, as ballet dancers would. The stunt might look hokey for a few seconds, the first time you see it—but then it feels natural and right. After all, in real life, actions say more than words can. This device is a stylized way of expressing the fact.

It’s also an example of how the production uses movement and occasional music to help balance, and give rhythm to, the ongoing streams of verbal interplay and tirades and wisecracks that Stupid Fucking Bird delivers.

The Buildup to a Big One

Perhaps the most stunning example comes at the end of the first act, right before intermission. By now the main themes have been established. Bird is, in one sense, a play about art.

Oh, mother. Emma (Maura Underwood) stands up for what's good for Emma while son Conrad is floored.

Oh, mother. Emma (Maura Underwood) stands up for what’s good for Emma while son Conrad is floored.

We’ve met characters who include a cynical middle-aged actress, an idealistic young actress, a famous author, a young (and perhaps not very talented) playwright striving furiously to make his mark, and the darkly disappointed Mash.

Along with these five, there’s also a geeky young fellow who doesn’t know much about art but knows what he likes, and an aging physician who is mostly cheerful but prone to musing upon the mysteries of life, which have escaped him. Quite a crew—all lifted straight from Chekhov’s Seagull, by the way, albeit with a bit of tweaking.

And, along with themes related to art, there are themes of love and desire. Many forms of love are explored, from motherly love to unrequited love to tainted love, including plenty of the unrequited and tainted. Except for the physician—the aging cheese who stands alone—every person in the play is in love with somebody who’s either in love with somebody else, or heading out the door while they try to get in.

This creates love triangles and quadrangles too complex to describe here, although they’re a big part of what drives the play and makes it so rich. Now, as for that scene that closes act one:

It’s a big ensemble scene. All hands are on stage, speaking directly to the audience. What they’re speaking is a litany of desires, going around the group in cycles, with each person at various times declaring the various things that he or she wants:

“I just want to be loved” … “I just want to be loved more” … “I want a bottomless bowl of ice cream—with a variety of esoterically twisted long-handled metal spoons“ … “I want sweet first kisses, inconceivable softness, discovery” … “I want to be 27 again. I think I’m ready to do my late twenties really well now” …

And so forth. The scene is powerful, partly due to how it’s written. Ardently serious desires are mixed with silly, trivial desires and impossible-but-it-sure-would-be-nice desires, in a swirling blend that hits home because, well, that’s how it is for each of us, inside our heads and guts.

What puts the scene over the top is how 12 Peers does it. Throughout the litany, recorded music plays: Kanye West’s dreamy piano piece, “Runaway,” from “Westworld.” Normally I don’t like recorded music used to punch up a stage play. Here, however, the music doesn’t punch holes in the scene; it merges with it.

Merges with it so marvelously that I could’ve sworn the actors were singing, or at least chanting—until I realized that no, they were just talking.

What happened was, “just talking” had been made so musical that the scene came across like one of those rousing ensemble numbers in a Broadway musical—the kind that can absolutely, electrically galvanize an audience—and, um, yeah. That is one of the things that’s good about the play.

This Stupid Fucking Bird doesn’t just speak to you. It sings.

Postscript, Closing Credits, and Ticket Info

Chekhov looks skeptical, though many critics say he'd love 'Stupid Fucking Bird.'

Chekhov looks skeptical, though many critics say he’d love ‘Stupid Fucking Bird.’

Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird is billed as “sort of adapted” from The Seagull. With some streamlining, it keeps the characters and story structure—if you have seen Chekhov’s 1896 masterpiece, you’ll recognize numerous incidents—but it rewrites the dialogue and most other aspects, while updating the setting to the America we know and love. Think Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness turned into Apocalypse Now: that sort of adaptation.

If you haven’t seen The Seagull, don’t worry about comparisons to Bird. They’re fun to think about but irrelevant to the experience.  Bird stands as a new work and I think you’ll like how it stands.

Stupid Fucking Bird premiered in Washington, D.C. in 2013. Directed for 12 Peers Theater by Vince Ventura, it’s acted by a sterling cast: Maura Underwood is Emma, the imperiously cynical middle-aged actress. Chris Cattell is her son Conrad, the mad young playwright. Matt Henderson is Conrad’s geeky best bud Dev. Sarah Chelli is Nina, the young actress who’s at the center of much of the action, not to mention the desire. Stefan Lingenfelter is the famous (and famously womanizing) author Trigorin. David Maslow is the intriguing Dr. Eugene Sorn, and you already know that golden-voiced Sara Ashley Fisher is Mash.

The scenic design, by Hank Bullington, is a knockout. Ditto for choreography by Brittany Teague, lighting by Gregory Messmer, sound by Peter Brucker, props and costume by Madison Hack, and good work by the rest of the 12 Peers crew—as well by James Sugg, who, along with the playwright, wrote Mash’s three songs.

Through Aug. 12 in the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre, Level B in the Cathedral of Learning, 4200 Fifth Ave., Oakland. For showtimes and tickets visit 12 Peers on the web or call 412-626-6784.

Production photos by Gregory Messmer. Anton Chekhov, undated, photographer unknown. 

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater for Entertainment Central.