|Photo by Bob Seary|
New Theatre presents, STUPID FUCKING BIRD, by Aaron Posner, at the New Theatre, King St. Newtown. 12 - 28 July.
STUPID FUCKING BIRD, is an American play by Aaron Posner, first seen in 2013. It has taken flight from the source material of Anton Chekhov's THE SEAGULL. It is kinda an adaptation that follows more than less the original plot and concerns of Chekhov but transposes them to a darker contemporary world - reconstructing the leading characters, expanding some of the minor characters and/or mashing some of the other characters into a composite of the originals. This play has seven actors, the original has 10 actors, at least - there are many 'extra' roles in a good production of THE SEAGULL.
In the original, a young writer, the son of an actress, gives a showing of a play he has written in demonstration of NEW FORM for the theatre. Similarly, so does Posner's hero, Conrad (Mansoor Noor): it is called, WE ARE HERE, starring his adored one, Nina (Megan Smart), much to the chagrin of his insulted actress, mother, Emma Arkadina (Kaitlyn Thor), unrequited love-lorn Mash (Annie Stafford), bewildered but patient Dev (Lloyd Allison-Young), too well loved, phoney, Doyle Trigorin (Gil Balfas), and befuddled Dr Eugene Sorn (Brendan Miles).
Director, Warwick Doddrell, along with his co-creatives: Set Designer, Jeremy Allen; Lighting Designer, Veronique Bennett; Costume Designers, Ellen Stanistreet and Jane Hughes; Composers and Sound Designers, Ben Pierpoint and Mary Rapp and Movement Director, Shy Magsalin have devised a mega-theatrical impact - NEW FORM?
We enter the theatre to a pumpingly loud dance track with all 7 actors onstage having a physical, individual 'rave' - the sound track to this show is contemporary propulsive and sometimes drowningly over loud - until all actors gather around a microphone-stand in a spotlight and then decide not to speak - they have already, individually, done this, conspicuously, in the 'dance-prologue' - there must be meaning! One of the actors, then, crosses the stage to another spot lighted microphone-stand and asks us to command the play to begin - there is a lot of fourth wall breakthrough with direct conversations and provocation to encourage the audience to converse directly with the players - some do. The actors never leave the stage (except for the interval, and when they refuse to take a curtain call - 'the rude buggers'.) and move the Set pieces and props around, sometimes, distractingly, maddeningly, through and over text. One of the Set pieces is, unfortunately, a sealed black box (alarm bells ring in my head) with one wall a window glaze with a visible standing microphone - which not many of the actors, frustratingly, know how to use to communicate to us from this 'isolation booth', as the characters career around and crash into each other in the cramped space lit a fiery red.
The Director seems to employ all the theoretical stuff of Meyerhold, Artaud, Brecht, Charles Mee and ... name some other well loved academic theoretical theatrical faddists and adaptors (Kip Williams?) There are, as well, song interludes self-accompanied on ukulele and guitar (Music, by Jim Fishwick) and dance routines and trendy modern dress with glimpses of naked features. It is all there (oops, not true: no paper crowns or dirty underwear!), including the painting of the auditorium walls to extend the fourth wall to the back seats, face-on blinding lights, occasional improvised text around issues of the day that, I guess, are declaring that we are all performing, that we are all here, together, this day, this night. All of us are actors in this theatre - in real time life - together! WE ARE HERE.
I am a declared Chekhovphile - if there is such a thing - and, so some might think that STUPID FUCKING BIRD, would not be my samovar/cup of tea. But, you are wrong, I thought the script by Mr Posner a brilliant piece of work. He brings onto stage, verbally, a possible sub-text of Chekhov's people - what Chekhov, famously, doesn't write but ambiguously provides clues to the possibilities of - and it is funny, insightful, playful and generally faithful. Does this play stand alone as a comprehensible piece of theatre? Does one need to know the original to appreciate what's going on? I don't know. But I, who knows the original play fairly intimately, found it a provocative tease, cheat and joy.
The play, as well, is not called "THE SEAGULL, by Anton Chekhov, adapted [adopted] by Aaron Posner", but shouts out: it is a new fucking play., STUPID FUCKING BIRD. I wish that some of Sydney practitioners had the nous, courage to do the same. I, by the way, loved Benedict Andrews' adaptation of THE SEAGULL - though thought the directorial/production by Mr Andrews, of his own play, a woefully misconceived failure. I even liked all of the above mega-theatre offers from the creatives of this production, BUT ... But, this clever, brilliant writing requires seven brilliant actors with skills that are mega! There are four actors up there that, however, well-drilled and enthusiastic they are, do not really have the prepared instruments to bring this bird to full flight.
Mansoor Noor as the depressed misanthrope, Conrad, brings an energetic delight to the challenges of Mr Posner's play and his Director's 'commands', igniting into a fully fledged creation, exhibiting wit, intelligence and a high perceptive (wicked) sense of humour - he is a 'hurricane' of focused skill beneath the wings of this BIRD. Too, Annie Stafford, as Mash, grabs hold of the cynically depressed and ironic self-deprecating emotional violence of her 'pathetic' character, and although some of her spoken vocal work doesn't always deliver a comprehensive clarity for the audience, the songs, from her, are a relative treat. Megan Smart playing Nina has a more difficult assignment, having to play the earnest central love interest of the play but draws one into the predicaments facing her character with delicate sensitivity and the full force of casual cruelty and consuming narcissism.
Mr Balfas as Trigorin does not have the charismatic force for the man nor much of his indolent sexuality - the story 'fuss' about Trigorin is dim in this production - and partnered with Ms Thor's Emma Arkadina ,which is, mostly, superficially 'acted', and like Mr Balfas' performance, vocally under-owned, under-skilled, places a large hole in the fabric of the production. There is a theatrical intelligence in both Mr Allison-Young and Miles' work but also an inherent dullness that prevents a radiance of thrill for the audience to want to identify with their men. There is function but not much generous 'giving' energy.
All of the Mega-theatre gestures employed under the Direction of Mr Doddrell are arresting but are not, always, in this production harnessed to elucidating what is going on. When, for instance, towards the end of Act One, this company step into the 'isolation box' lit in red with a live microphone-on-stand, one expects that this offer from the Director, and each of the actors, is going to add to a rising, comprehensible stratospheric catharsis, a step-by-step buoyant lucidity of the action and themes of the play, but as none of these actors seem to know where to stand to be communicative with the microphone and are choreographically in chaotic mayhem - some never ever reaching the broadcast position - all one can do in the audience is to be distracted, irritated, with the lack of accuracy - is it a lack of rehearsal? - for, both the lack of disciplined vocal orchestration and physical choreography from all the actors destroys the possible theatrical intent of the 'trendy' statement of the glazed black box.
One has little choice but to become objectively disconnected to the production and the play. One gives up - it all becomes just a gist of an 'idea', for the storytelling. I do suppose the text that Mr Posner has written is part of his dramaturgical argument for the play and is meant to be heard by the audience and is not meant to thrown away by the actors in a welter of noise and movement, otherwise he could have just written say "Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb" for each of the actors in this interlude. What this company of artists are offering us is really not enough when one is working with such writing. To be approximate (or, just enthusiastic) with the technical skills demanded is not enough. The text, talk, is here, sacrificed, by the actors, under the Directorial behest of Mr Doddrell, with either inaudible or incomprehensible diction and the need to keep the action going.
STUPID FUCKING BIRD is a demanding 'farce' of intellect, vocal, physical and emotional judgement, skill control. It requires a cool head, objective technical control, and certainly not uncontrolled demonstrations of emotional states in an expressed intellectual conceptualisation of mega-theatrics. The text must be primary. Only Mr Noor, in this company, has it all. In spades.
STUPID FUCKING BIRD, then, for some of us is worth the effort to see, despite the obfuscations of performance and Direction - a contemporary take on Chekhov's THE SEAGULL that is truly daring, original, relevant and still respectful, even adoring of the original. Mr Posner has made a career of adapting other people's work - novels and plays. He has, for instance also adapted UNCLE VANYA, as LIFE SUCKS and THREE SISTERS as NO SISTERS.
My biggest laugh came in one of Conrad's raves that maybe we don't need NEW FORMS but rather OLD FORMS DONE BETTER. Now that is a real challenge for some of our contemporary Directors.