The faces you can see from left to right: Jasmine Jean Sim, MJ Sieber, Adam Standley, Keiko Green, Suzanne Bouchard. Theyre all apprehensive because theyre starring in a play about plays thats based on a play with a play in it.
The faces you can see from left to right: Jasmine Jean Sim, MJ Sieber, Adam Standley, Keiko Green, Suzanne Bouchard. They're all apprehensive because they're standing on garish metal platforms that make no sense in the world of the play. Chris Bennion

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The question Aaron Posner keeps asking in Stupid Fucking Bird, his adaptation of Chekhov's portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man-type soap opera, The Seagull, is why. WHYYYYYYY? Why do people even produce plays in the 21st century? Why don't we just stop making new stuff and take a few years to consider all the stuff that's already been made? Why are we even in a theater right now watching someone ask these questions?

One glib reply is this: Maybe if you stopped talking about yourself all the time, Theater, people would start caring a little more. Plays commenting on themselves are part of an ancient tradition (I just saw The Tempest last week, for the love of god), but by engaging that tradition the playwright risks creating a play that contains all the drama of watching a snake eating its own tail for two hours plus intermission. (Last Friday Stupid Fucking Bird started around 8:00 pm. When I looked at my watch at the end of the show, it was 10:40 pm. Just sayin's all.)

But anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we get into what Posner is saying in this play, we have to chip through the bunker of meta-theatricality that protects the play against the accusation that it is trying to say anything at all.

All the existential questions come from Con (Adam Standley), the brooding playwright at the center of SFB, who desperately prods his art for "new forms, new ways of being in the world."

But Con's yearning to be a better artist is a thinly-veiled metaphor for his quest to earn the love of two women: an aspiring actor named Nina (Jasmine Jean Sim) and his mother (a famous actor, Emma, played by Suzanne Bouchard). Sidebar: What's the deal with all the incest vibes this season, Seattle theater? I'm looking at you, A View from the Bridge and at you, Fireface.

Anyway, both Emma and Nina are too busy to quell Con's angst because they're too busy competing for the affection of a famous novelist named Trig (Connor Toms), who is too in love with himself to return their affection.

This little love quadrangle vexes the emo singer-songwriter Mash (Keiko Green), who is, of course, in love with Con. But her enduring and fruitless quest for his attention blinds her to the more stable love-feelings emanating from Dev (MJ Sieber), a poor teacher who pursues Mash with the creepy patience and persistence of an archetypal Nice Guy.

Meanwhile—I told you this was a soap opera—the family's doctor, Sorn (G. Valmont Thomas), walks around the big country house where all this non-action takes place, pontificating and offering temporary succor to the love-worn and self-obsessed weirdos who surround him.

Or so we're told. The play's meta-ness licenses an awful lot of telling in this script. One particularly egregious example of this happens toward the end of Act I, when all the characters mope around the stage and announce what they want in that annoying, yearning tone that only exists in theater: "I want to be loved," says Nina, Con, and Dev.

But Chekhov's script is tell-y, too, and SFB's use of that mode would be fine if Posner's script didn't love itself for being so clever. SFB self-congratulatory cleverness begins with the first scene, when Con stages a play that knows it's a play within a play that knows it's a play whose central tension involves explaining its own existence. The Seagull starts with a play-within-a-play, too, obviously, but Chekhov at least made it clear that Konstantin (Con's analogue) is doing the play to get laid, which, though a little crass, takes the heat off the conceit a little and makes the play's failure more painful to watch.

In the adaptation, Con's play is a parody of bad performance art obsessed with presence. The play stars Nina, and her attempt to call attention to the present moment ends up only calling attention to the fact that Con is trying too hard to produce a new kind of art, which ends up calling attention to the fact that Posner is sort of trying to do the same. Stupid Fucking Bird hums along at exactly that level of meta-theatricality the whole way through, often getting in the way of its own intentions by deflating any serious existential questions the second they're raised.

A still from the play within the play that knows its a play within a play, starring the non-Seagull Nina (Jasmine Jean Sim). This play makes fun of the kind of feeling of presentness Stupid Fucking Bird is trying to achieve. So the play deflates its project from the get-go! Thats kinda fun, right? Anybody need a drink?
A still from the play Here. We. Are., which is a play within the play that knows its a play, starring the non-Seagull Nina (Jasmine Jean Sim). This play makes fun of the kind of feeling of presentness Stupid Fucking Bird is trying to achieve. So the play deflates its project from the get-go. That's kinda fun, right? Anybody wanna go watch a tractor pull? Chris Bennion

The structure pays off when actors expertly deliver monologues about how much they suck at acting. Sims suffers this fate, as does Standley, whose comic timing and delivery is impeccable. Under the direction of Jessica Kubzanksky, he found the humor and sincere pathos in every one of his lines. These good performances answer Con's worries about the worth of performance, and contain the particular sadness of watching someone do their party trick.

In fact, almost all of the performances in this play are worth noting. Green's semi-abrasive negativity is charming, especially when she's singing bleak songs about life being terrible on the ukulele. Bouchard's Emma is so plump with self-assurance that she manages to retain her power even when begging her man not to abandon her for the young wannabe starlet, Nina. Another moment that worked well within the meta structure was when Thomas as Dr. Sorn accuses his fellows and the audience of projecting feelings onto him that he doesn't feel, a fresh-seeming idea that's immediately embodied when the ensemble starts to sing "Happy Birthday" to him shortly after his melancholy meditation on his own life and death.

But the first bit of real tension that the form introduces comes 50 minutes into the play, when Con carries on a dialogue with the audience. He asks something like, "What do you do when someone you love doesn't love you back?" One man shouted out, "Lower your standards!" (The only thing worse than watching a play that's obsessed with its own cleverness is hearing from audience members who are obsessed with their own cleverness.) Someone else shouted, "Move on!" Another person yelled the right answer: "Edit the script." Con stood still on the stage for a moment and said, "Yes, that's correct. That's exactly right." Then he exited as if he was about to do something.

Here was a real moment where I thought I might be watching a kind of choose-your-own-adventure play, but really he just goes and botches a suicide like he does in the original play. One of the more major changes to Chekhov's script happens at the end, where *SPOILER ALERT* the question as to whether Con ultimately kills himself is left ambiguous. (Konstantin does kill himself at the end of The Seagull.) This choice implies that the way to get to new forms is to revise and re-tell the old stuff but slightly differently and in our own way. Makes me wish Posner would have just skipped this self-reflective étude step and just wrote something new.

Anyway, answer Con's meta question re: theater's purpose however you will (here's one: people do theater becuase it's a practice/journey that's a reward in itself, so the question of "purpose" or "utility" is moot) and what you're left with is a less interesting reduction of Chekhov's soap opera romance. In Posner's play, we get monologue after monologue of characters talking to the audience about their mixed feelings of love without even offering us a beer first. At least in The Seagull there's the tension of watching the handful of almost comically animated competing philosophies complex characters trying to flirt with each other in public without getting caught. You can find yourself wondering whether Trigorin (named "Trig" in Posner's play) is going to sleep with Nina or what, even though you don't want it to happen.

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But a greater offense than Posner reducing the gossipy fun of Chekhov's script is Martin Christoffel's slapdash set. Tree branches and wrinkly rainbow streamers hung down from the lighting rig to indicate a forest, but...a forest of rainbow trees, I guess? Throughout the play you watch actors shuffle around garish, round metallic boxes that seemed to be on loan from some high school drama department. Nothing made sense.

One thing on set that did make sense, though was the giant portrait of Chekhov illuminating the stage for most of the play, recalling the looming eyeballs of Dr. T.J. Ekleburg from The Great Gatsby. Rick Paulsen's lighting choice here works as a self-deprecating joke (the actors are defacing the writer who dreamed up the ground they're walking on) and as a reflection the anxiety of influence that drives the play. Though the choice makes sense, it's a little heavy handed.

In a program interview with John Langs, ACT's artistic director, Posner describes "a certain quality of laughter that tell you that people are not just laughing because it's 'haha funny,' but because it's going deeper for them," which he noticed during his play's premiere. I did get a sense of that laughter in the audience, and so my eye-rolling here could largely be a function of my frustration with theater that complains about how nobody takes theater seriously. Clearly, the people who were in the audience do take theater plenty seriously, so maybe their laughter is enough. I may have had more in common with the empty seats.

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