This unique take on the Chekhov classic is “polished” and “nuanced”, on stage in Toronto
Stupid Fucking Bird, produced The Bird Collective and playing at a pop up theatre at 270 King Street West, bills itself as “sort of adapted from The Seagull by Anton Chekhov.” Given that description and the title of the play itself, I expected a broad goofball comedy. Instead, Stupid Fucking Bird is faithful to the heart of the original, but modernized and meta-theatrical.
The location, where the production was moved after the closing of Storefront Theatre, is a magnificent space that the collective used with ingenuity. The first act takes place on and around a stage of rough, unvarnished boards, against walls painted with a landscape as if we’re at a luxurious Muskoka cottage.
This is, indeed, Emma Arkadina’s (Sarah Orenstein) summer home; being a successful actress, she has built a stage in her backyard. Tonight her son, Conrad (Daniel Maslany), is debuting his first theatrical work, starring his girlfriend Nina (Karen Knox). But first, we meet the delightfully dour Mash (Rachel Cairns) and the determinedly optimistic Dev (Brendan Hobin).
At the top of the show, Dev and Mash are comparing their relative poverty, which is the only part of the adaptation that didn’t work for me, as they are hanging out in sumptuous surroundings with well off people. Initially Mash seems like she might work there — she sweeps the stage, wears an apron and mentions being a cook — but we don’t see her do any further domestic chores, and she does not interact with Emma, Dev and Emma’s brother Eugene (Richard Greenblatt) as if she were an employee.
Chekhov’s version took place on a Russian country estate around the turn of the 20th century and the character of Masha was the daughter of the estate’s steward, so of a lower class than the owning family. Class, while certainly still an issue today, doesn’t translate well in this work, and has no impact on the ensuing action.
Dev and Mash have an excellent comic dynamic. Dev is openly in love with Mash, who takes every opportunity to stress that she has absolutely no interest. She is, instead, besotted with Conrad who is devoted to Nina. But Emma has brought her boyfriend to the occasion, who is none other than the celebrated writer Trigorin (Craig Lauzon). Nina loves Trigorin’s books and after meeting him in person she becomes infatuated.
Conrad’s presentation, featuring Nina, is a performance art piece that criticizes conventional theatre, angering his mother. This play within a play provides the initial opportunity for the characters to reference themselves as being in a play, interacting with the audience. This is amusing but I found it also drew a logical line between the intense emotionality dramatic scenes and more stagey techniques, such as the finale of the first act when the characters line up and straightforwardly communicate their motivations in “I want” statements.
For the second act we were asked to get up and wheel our chairs into the next room, where the set is the house’s kitchen. (Side note: how nice it was to sit in a comfortable office chair for the two and a half hours of the show!) The love triangle that is actually a hexagram plays out in a series of two handers. As one person leaves another enters, and we see into their hearts and loins via seductions, laments, and a well choreographed number where the four younger characters speak their minds in overlapping unison.
Unfortunately, the pop up location did a disservice to this act as the space had significant bleedthrough of sound from nearby, with heavy thumping and aggressive dance music compromising the atmosphere of the scenes.
For the last act we wheeled our office chairs again to a set of the patio of the house, but four years later. Here, we find out not just what the status of the relationships are now, but what the future and eventual deaths are for all of the characters.
The production is carefully thought out and executed by director Vinetta Strombergs. The performances are polished and nuanced, and I loved the inclusion of musical numbers with Cairn’s lovely vocals and ukele playing, often backed up with Hobin on guitar. With the one exception I had to Aaron Posner’s script, I feel that this is an admirable Seagull for the current age.
- Stupid Fucking Bird, produced by The Bird Collective, is playing at a pop up theatre at 270 King Street West until March 19, 2017.
- Performances are Thursday to Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2P M and 7 PM
- Tickets are $20 to $35 in advance, $5 more at the door
- Purchase online or at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333
- Audience advisory: This show features gunshots and suicide
Image provided by the company