Friday, April 21, 2017

Whose Line Is It Anyway?

 Samantha LeBrocq and Dwight Chiles as Mash and Dev in Stupid Fucking Bird

The Magnetic Theatre
Stupid Fucking Bird
by Aaron Posner
Through May 2, 2017, at Magnetic 375, 375 Depot Street, River Arts District

 Playwrights have been riffing on other playwrights since the Greeks invented theatre.

Sometimes they do it for comic effect. Aristophanes sent up Aeschylus and Euripides in a Battle of the Bards he called The Frogs. He poked fun at stage conventions and his fellow writers by having Dionysus, the god of theatre himself, balance pages of their scripts on a giant scale to judge who was the heavyweight champion of poets.

Sometimes the playwright has philosophical issues. Shakespeare borrowed plots and characters freely from fellow dramatists to meditate on life's questions. You know the ones: to be or not to be, what's in a name, and If you prick us, do we not bleed?

Along the way, he grabbed the idea of a play-within-a-play (as well as the whole set-up for Hamlet) from Thomas Kyd. When we watch actors play characters who are watching other actors playing actors who are playing characters. . .well, maybe we'll think about trying to peel the onion of reality and discover what's behind the Matrix.

Those big questions—What is Art, Why are We Here, Who Are We, What is Realty, Why Do Fools Fall in Love—also interest the playwright Aaron Posner, a founder of the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia. To tackle them, he appropriated Anton Chekhov's 1896 play The Sea Gull as a template for a 2013 comedy with the in-yer-face title of Stupid Fucking Bird.

The Mountain Art Theatre, which usually works with HART Theatre in Waynesville, is giving Stupid Bird a high-octane production, in association with Asheville's adventurous Magnetic Theatre, which usually focuses on new works by local playwrights. It's at the Magnetic's home in the River Arts District through May 6.

Abundant guffaws

Chekhov wonks get to see a favorite play deconstructed the way Picasso rearranged a human face. If you're not a Chekhov groupie, you may recall him as that Russian writer whose enervated aristocrats and intellectuals sit around drinking tea from samovars, strumming guitars or balalaikas, musing on the meaning of it all, and pining for better days, past or future.

Whatever your view of Chekhov, or if you have none, you'll recognize—and enjoy—a sophisticated hit-job on a theatrical classic. Chekhov famously described his Sea Gull as a comedy, although his moody characters and their melancholy fates were never meant to be laugh-out-loud funny. Mountain Art, Magnetic, and Aaron Posner, however, are going for guffaws and getting them in abundance.

As directed by the talented Henry Williamson, this production of Stupid Bird has the zaniness of Saturday Night Live and Monty Python filtered through Woody Allen in his New Yorker mode, with a dash of John Stewart's knowing smirk. Williamson gets a big assist from his choreographer Kristi DeVille, who gives the ensemble a hilarious scarf dance. It's worthy of a Fiddler on the Roof with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca playing Tevye and Golda.

Having actors interrupt Chekhovian philosophizing to break into song or step out of character to address the audience is Posner's (and Williamson's) way of reminding the audience, in good Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt style, "Hey, it's only a play, and these men and women are merely players. And aren't we all."

Good company

Posner is in good company adapting Chekhov. There's a lot of it going around. Steven Dietz replayed a climactic scene from The Sea Gull forty-three times in The Nina Variations. Christopher Durang mined major commercial success with his 2013 Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. He shmushed together plots and characters from all of Chekhov's plays (Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Sea Gull, and The Cherry Orchard) and thrust them into contemporary situation-comedyland. And Irish director Gavin Quinn recently made a theatre piece he called The Sea Gull and Other Birds.

Whether Posner's title is in good company with other in-yer-face playwrights like Mark Ravenhill (Shopping and Fucking) and Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Motherfucker with the Hat) is another question. Your answer may depend on whether you think saying the F-word over and over and over—and over—makes you a hip grown-up or just a potty-mouth. At least the title warns you what to expect.

Posner was tapping into the Chekhov-homage Zeitgeist at about the same time as Christopher Durang. Stupid Fucking Bird premiered in Philadelphia two months after Vanya and Sonia hit Broadway, and Posner's play joined Durang's on American Theatre magazine's top ten list of plays produced at regional professional theatres during the 2015-16 season.

Chekhov love

Why all this love for Chekhov? Playwrights and directors and actors worship him because he taught the modern theatre almost everything it knows about constructing plays that are both searingly realistic and achingly poetic.

He also foreshadowed our contemporary sense of irony. His people say one thing but mean another. He showed us the silliness and the sadness of people reaching for profundities a beat before they slip on the banana peel. He was the progenitor of Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett, and Tom Stoppard.

Chekhov was also a playwright of indirection. Nothing much seems to happen, but, boy, are there volcanoes bubbling inside these folks living their everyday banalities. On stage, they drink vodka, play cards, and chat about the weather or the books they are reading. Offstage, men and women conduct torrid affairs, innocence is lost, young love is thwarted, infants die, fatal duels are fought, mortgages are foreclosed, families break apart.

In Stupid Bird, Posner (and Williamson) turn Chekhov and The Sea Gull inside out. What was hinted becomes explicit. Passion that simmered in glances and fleeting touches here bursts into heated groping. Anger that flared and was quickly smoothed over in Chekhov blazes into lengthy tirades in Posner. (Sometimes those tirades are too lengthy.)

Posner retains most of Chekhov's intricate, daisy-chain plot about the unblessed ties that bind families into knots: love, resentment, jealousy, and ambition. A girl (Masha in the original, Mash in Stupid Bird, played by Samantha LeBrocq) loves the boy next door (Constantine/Conrad), who doesn't love her. Con (Allen T. Law) loves Nina (Josephine Thomas) who doesn't love him as much as he loves her.

Nina, meanwhile, falls for Trigorin (David Anthony Yeates), the lover of Con's mother (Irina in Chekhov, Emma in Posner, played by Tracey Johnston-Crum). Trigorin doesn't love her back but succumbs when Nina does something she'd never do in Chekhov. She takes off her clothes and tells him what she has in mind.

Chekhov's people are buttoned up. Posner's people let it all hang out. Well, not all of it.  Williamson and his actors have decided Asheville isn't ready for what the English call "the dangly bits." 

Making these family knots all the knottier, Con, Nina, Trigorin, and Emma are artists or would-be artists. They have the obsessive and combustible temperaments that go with the madness of art.

Trigorin, a writer, is the most successful. His gifts are modest. He knows it, and he floats comfortably on popular acclaim. Con yearns to be a great writer who breaks molds. But most of all he yearns for his mother's approval.

Emma is a B-list movie actress who had Con when she was eighteen. She's painfully aware that a twenty-something son means she is no longer a credible ingenue. Now Nina is a threat both as the new ingenue on the block and a rival for Trigorin.

Nina wants to be an actress, but  she doesn't want to take the time to learn her craft. Mostly she just wants fame, and Trigorin is the ticket to take her there.

These lovers aren't just star-crossed. They are asteroids on orbit to collide. Revolving around them are two lesser lights: Emma's world-weary but sympathetic brother, Dr. Sorn (Steven Samuels), and Mash's hapless suitor, the nebbishy Dev (Dwight Chiles), who scrapes out a living tutoring high school students.

Sorn feels everyone's pain and regrets he hasn't followed his bliss or even discovered if he had one. Steven Samuels, the artistic director of the Magnetic Theatre and its driving visionary, plays Sorn looking a little like a Barney Google-Eddie Cantor hybrid. He's a bit of a  schlemiel but an appealing one who offers kind words and life-savers for life's awkward moments.

Dev, in a wonderfully understated performance, is the only one happy with who he is and just wants to settle down with Mash and live in quiet nebbishdom. 

Emotional minefields

Williamson guides his actors deftly through these emotional minefields on a masterfully simple set. Like the play, the set doesn't want us to suspend disbelief that we're seeing anything other than actors on a stage.

The bare walls of the theatre itself are painted black. There are some white graphic scribbles, a mural-size face of Anton Chekhov himself off to one side, a raw wooden platform that the actors move around, and a grab bag of furniture and props that might have come from a garage sale. It's designed by Dwight Chiles, who is also playing Dev.

Williamson pumps the energy of the first act forward and draws absorbing performances from a tight ensemble. His actors have drilled down into these people, although some have drilled less deeply than others. 

Sometimes the director lets Allen T. Law as Con and Tracey Johnston-Crum as Emma step on the IED that lures every actor, playing anger, the easiest emotion. When they stamp their feet and shout too much, they might have wandered in from a bad amateur production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

As conceived by Posner, Con and Emma are both self-dramatizing egotists. By the second act, their histrionics are as tiresome as any relative who uses every holiday gathering to rehearse old family grievances. If the second act drags a bit, it may be Posner who can't tell us anything he hasn't already told us about these people. Or maybe the actors haven't found anything new for them.

Law and Johnston-Crum, however, have the best secret weapon to portray unlikable characters like these. They are likeable actors. They really know how to get an audience on their side.

Since Posner is going for the Brechtian actor who comments on, as well as enacts, the character, this might be Williamson's cue to temper some of the mother-son Who's-Afraid-of-Virginia-Woolf shouting matches. Should Law and Johnston-Crum let us see they know how unpleasant Con and Emma can be, just as we do?

Another solution to second act longueurs: judicious script cutting. 

While Law and Johnston-Crum get overheated, Josephine Thomas and David Anthony Yeates hadn't found the ignition for Nina and Trigorin by opening night. This is one of those times when I can only hope a director and his clearly talented actors keep digging during an extended run until they strike sparks.

It isn't sparks for Samantha LeBrocq as Mash and Dwight Chiles as Dev. It's intensely glowing embers. These two actors have realized that while everyone else is going for full-frontal catharsis, their best tactic is implying more than they say.

With her black-tinted lips, blue-streaked black hair, and sloganeering black t-shirts, LeBrocq makes Mash look like a refugee from a My Chemical Romance video. Her pink ukelele and her sardonic songs tell us she knows her goth is a pose. Chiles's Dev is a lovable schlump who knows how to play his schlumpiness to get the girl.

LeBrocq is also the costume designer, and her own attire and the laugh-provoking Eddie Bauer gear she gives Dev show she understands all of the characters as well as she does her own. Emma's plunge-bra neckline in the first act is inspired. (Emma's red slip and Trigorin's blue boxer-briefs in the second act are not  inspired.)

LeBrocq and Chiles have one of the best moments in the show. Dev is telling Masha about a flock of geese he saw waddling down the road. As he does a Ministry-of-Silly Walks imitation, a tiny smile breaks the perpetual scowl on Mash's face. In that flash,  she realizes she can find something endearing in him. We understand why she will marry him despite her broken heart over Con.

The playwright knows a man doing a goose walk to win his sweetheart is pure Chekhov. And these two actors know how to do Chekhovian big time. 

Now, if LeBrocq had just changed that black lipstick for something warmer when she comes back three years later as a wife and mother of three children, her character's arc would have been complete. 

Risky question

Towards the end of Stupid Bird, the playwright has Con, his playwright character stand-in, ask a risky question. The play he has written (and maybe it's  the play we're watching), Con says, doesn't have "an original thought in it. It's . . . full of people just angsting and whining and going on and on endlessly . . .I mean, new forms? Why? Why? Why new forms?"

Directly addressing the audience, he asks, "How about this for an idea: Just do the old forms BETTER! Who am I to change them? I mean, aren't there reasons that protagonists and antagonists and rising action and climaxes and dénouements have been around for thousands of years?"

One of the fallacies of audience-participation theatre is that  the audience will actually participate. The night I was there, no one shouted, "Good question! Just do The Fucking Sea Gull as Chekhov wrote it, for god's sake."

That's one answer. The other answer is, "If a clever parody, as knowing and adoring as this one, will lead audiences back to the original, go for it."

Arnold Wengrow is the author of The Designs of Santo Loquasto, a chronicle of the set and costume designer's work on Broadway, Off Broadway, for dance, opera, and the movies, including thirty films by Woody Allen.  It is profusely illustrated with almost 100 renderings, models, and production photographs and includes a complete design chronology, as well as a listing of Mr. Loquasto's awards and honors.  Published by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT).

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Photo: Rodney Smith@ tempusfugitasheville

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