The whole profane title of “Stupid ... Bird,” which opened last weekend at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center, can’t be printed in a family newspaper. But I can entreat those of you with a love of Anton Chekhov and a taste for theatrical horseplay to rush out and see Aaron Posner’s bright, jocular and not in the least offensive modernization of “The Seagull.”
This production, a collaboration between the Theatre @ Boston Court and Circle X Theatre Company, is a good deal more comically rambunctious than Donald Margulies’ Chekhovian mash-up “The Country House,” which is now receiving its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse. But it’s every bit as serious an investigation into what might be called the melancholy of everyday life.
Posner’s drama, a hit when it premiered at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., is admittedly a tad overwritten in places. But it zings with audacity. Not only does the play update the core characters of “The Seagull,” but it has those characters every now and again asking audience members for advice. Luigi Pirandello, that old master of metatheatrical mischief, should be smiling down from the tragicomic heavens.
Alain de Botton wrote a sly self-help manual titled “How Proust Can Change Your Life.” Posner wonders how Chekhov’s unique wisdom can be of use to us. His dramatis personae, a gaggle of lovesick artists and their admirers, seek to improve their lot by contemplating the lessons of Russia’s greatest playwright. But can existence itself be ameliorated?
Stamina and self-honesty are prized values in Chekhov’s work, but adjusting one’s narrative when it has reached a dead end is never easy. Posner doesn’t mask the bleakness but he permits the possibility of slow, incremental change. And that’s a prescription the good doctor Chekhov, whose trademark pince-nez makes a cameo on a superbly versatile set by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, has written countless times himself.
Director Michael Michetti has assembled what just may be my favorite ensemble of the year. Front and center is Conrad Arkadina (played with rumbling millennial angst by Will Bradley), a would-be avant-gardist who’s desperately in love with Nina (Zarah Mahler), an aspiring actress with dewy-eyed notions of success and fame.
Emma Arkadina (Amy Pietz), Conrad’s mother, is an acting diva who doesn’t especially like that her son is encroaching with revolutionary fervor onto her turf. She clucks her disapproval at his “site-specific performance event” while sitting with her beau, the famous writer Doyle Trigorin (Matthew Floyd Miller).
Trigorin can’t help noticing that Nina, the star of Conrad’s groundbreaking entertainment, is gaga for him. Nor for that matter can Emma or Conrad, which isn’t exactly easing the tensions of their Oedipally troubled relationship.
A loves B who loves C who’s just out of his mind for D. The daisy chain of unrequited love in “Stupid ... Bird” makes up much of what constitutes the work’s “plot.”
“The Seagull,” as drama critic Richard Gilman elucidated in his brilliant book “Chekhov’s Plays: An Opening Into Eternity,” de-romanticizes what it means to be an artist and what it means to be in love. This journey is continued by Posner, not with the same degree of nuance or playwriting sophistication but with a galloping adventurousness and an often bracing contemporary wit.
When Masha (a wonderfully sandpaper-y Charlotte Gulezian) explains to Dev Dylan (Adam Silver) why she always wears black, her voice and demeanor would be ideal for the “before” segment of an antidepressant commercial. “Black is slimming,” she deadpans to the man who adores her even though she makes no secret that it’s Conrad her heart desires. (The songs she strums on a tiny guitar, little ditties of existential despair, are a giggling delight.)
Dr. Eugene Sorn (Arye Gross), a combination of characters from “The Seagull,” wistfully remarks, “There is so much love in this house. Or what passes for love.” He may be old and in failing health, but he’s still sympathetic to the way romance motors life along.
Addressing the audience directly, he adds, “Remember, if you take nothing else away from this ... ‘play,’ or whatever it is, remember this — when you see an old guy ... You never know. Where he might have been. Or what he might have done. Or with whom.”
This is the playful spirit of a comedy that urges us, in the gentle spirit of Chekhov, to live a little better. Whether it will have a salutary effect is anyone’s guess, but this top-notch, exuberantly performed production will definitely buoy your mood.
‘Stupid ... Bird’
Where: Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 27.
Contact: (626) 683-6883 or https://www.bostoncourt.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes