At one point in "Stupid F***ing Bird," the endlessly self-aware play by Aaron Posner that will be sweet and oft-hilarious relief for anyone who has sat through way too many shattering productions of the fragile plays of Anton Chekhov, the characters, neurotics all, start to obsess about how little they mean.
They're merely characters in a play, they tell us, and they well know that moments after they exit stage left (or right or wherever the heck), we'll be shuffling to the end of the row and checking our smartphones for whatever precious emails we missed while they were baring their souls, or, say, planning to kill themselves. They do, however, take some solace in that they are in a play with profanity in the title. That bit of bait-and-switch, they chuckle, at least has sold some tickets. Well, maybe that and a two-bit Masha, here named Mash, singing "Desperado" on her crummy little banjo.
"Stupid F***ing Bird" (did I mention there is profanity in the title? And the curtain speech? And wherever else they can slip in some?) indulges at great length in what a better class of academics call metatheater — or theater about theater, or plays in which all the characters know full well that they are in a play. Posner, a hot playwright and justly so, is hardly the first scribe to link metadramatic tricks (typically used for comedy, a la David Letterman) to existential angst. Luigi Pirandello and Samuel Beckett both got there first. You can see why. When you're watching a show about characters trapped in a stupid Chekhov play, it's a short mental leap to wondering whether your entire life is a stupid Chekhov play. I went there at least 9,343 times on Thursday night at the Richard Christiansen Theater.
Sideshow Theatre Company, an itinerant, non-Equity company, did well to snag the rights to "Stupid F***ing Bird," which was a major recent hit in Washington D.C. I am often conscious of how aging critics such as myself, who would rather suffer the agonies of Wrigley Field than listen to another cut-rate, off-Loop Nina find out the same old stuff once again, have a built-in inclination for deconstructions and self-aware plays, mostly out of relief that we don't have to sit through another version of the real thing.
Doing the real thing is a good bit harder — and it's harder still to get respect for your efforts.
So stipulated. But while this play certainly appeals most to those who know their Chekhov and who'll recognize a shrewd mirroring of the events of the actual play, it's no mere parody. Not at all. It is frequently very thoughtful and, at times, deeply sad.
To a large extent, Posner has approached "The Seagull" like a teacher desperately trying to explain its meaning to the sadly ignorant or uncaring, substituting that kind of frantic contemporary dialogue for the original stuff. Then he extends that approach into building modern (kind of) characters who know they're all pills but cannot help themselves, being so consumed by their own passions and ennui. Aren't we all?
In other words, Posner explodes and explicates his Chekhov for fun and profit.
Of all the work I've seen of this young company, this low-cost show, which is well directed by Jonathan L. Green, is the best. Katy Carolina Collins makes a fun, grungy Mash with a sweet singing voice. Cody Proctor is a nicely whacked out Trig (perchance you see the naming convention). Norm Woodel, whose melancholy Sorn is poignant in a Chicago-guy kind of way, had me verklempt when he talked about wanting a do-over for his late 20s, having belatedly figured out how to be that age. And Stacy Stoltz, who plays Emma, goes to her personal well for quite the substantial drink of water. There is a sag in Act 3 momentum, but otherwise Green's staging moves well and, more important, stylistically catches the sweet spot between cleverness and vulnerability.
But the most crucial performance is from Nate Whelden, who I often seen in small roles, but who seizes his big chance here as Con to show us just how much it sucks when the girl you love does not love you back and would rather shack up with the flashy, old writer guy with the bucks and the reputation. Tough to recover. It can take years. More than you have.
And then there's Nina, sweetly, smartly and annoyingly played by Nina O'Keefe. Perchance her name helped her get the part. If so, that would be very much in keeping with the whole enterprise.
When: Through Sept. 21
Where: Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes