A ukulele lady finds her niche in Woolly Mammoth’s ‘Stupid F...ing Bird’


Kimberly Gilbert and Cody Nickell in the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company production of "Stupid F---ing Bird." (Stan Barouh)
August 12

Shakespeare had his lute players, August Wilson had his jazz musicians, and Aaron Posner has his ukulele girls.

Or as he calls them, his “ubiquitous ukulele girls.” And to be fair, he also occasionally has a ukulele guy.

Posner is a Montgomery County-based writer and director whose ukulele-heavy play “Stupid F---ing Bird “ closes Sunday at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. It is the fourth play he has written or directed on a D.C. stage in recent years to feature the instrument, andmore of these pint-size, pineapple-shaped instruments coming to area theaters soon, he says.

“I just love the ukulele,” Posner says. He was in Spring Green, Wis., this week, where he’s directing a George Bernard Shaw play for American Players Theatre. He couldn’t work a ukulele into Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma,” but says he first used the instrument in a show about two decades ago.

Asking an actress to strum a ukulele has become something of a trend, particularly, although not exclusively, in Shakespearean productions. The ukulele was one of a dozen or so instruments featured in Kneehigh Theatre’s whimsical, tune-filled touring production of “Brief Encounter,” which ran at the Shakespeare Theatre in the spring. Posner has used the instrument in at least three recent shows he directed at the Folger Theatre – “The Conference of the Birds,” “A Comedy of Errors” and “Twelfth Night.”

Actress Britt Duff was cast in 2012’s “The Conference of the Birds” after Posner spotted her busking outside Barnes & Noble in Bethesda. (She’s since played the instrument in other non-Posner-directed shows.) Beth Emelson, Folger’s assistant artistic producer, says that when actors are asked to bring an instrument to an audition, more and more of them show up with a ukulele.

“We’ve definitely noticed an uptick,” Emelson says. “We always ask if people play anything, and the uke seems to be a portable, relatively easy instrument to incorporate in a production.”

Portability is also on Posner’s list of ukulele “virtues.”

“First, they are small,” Posner says. “They are small, and easily transported. Second, they are not a guitar. The moment a human being comes onstage with a guitar, there are a ton of associations that pop up in the audience’s mind, although maybe now there are associations that people have with the ukulele, too.”

Posner also points out that playing the ukulele is relatively easy. “A decent musician can pick up a song or two on the ukulele during a rehearsal period, not like, say, the trumpet. Plus it doesn’t fight with the human voice. It supports it in a natural way.”

In early 2012, when Posner first got a group of actors together to read his profane riff on Chekhov’s play “The Seagull,” the script which would eventually become “Stupid F---ing Bird,” he asked actress Kimberly Gilbert if she could play a ukulele.

“No, I don’t,” Gilbert recalls telling him. “But that will be a nice adventure.”

She visited a Cleveland Park music store and bought one. Woolly Mammoth reimbursed her, but she bought it back. “I just kinda fell in love with it. By the time we started rehearsing in 2013 [for the play’s original run], I had a pretty good grip on the ukulele.”

Although Gilbert has no formal musical training, she learned to play the piano for Posner in 2010 when he directed Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room(or The Vibrator Play)” at Woolly. Gilbert is, he says, “one of the hardest-working actors in Washington.” Faking her way through the chords in songs James Sugg wrote for “Stupid F---ing Bird” by was an option, but instead Gilbert sits down near the show’s opening to strum, and sings — with authority, sincerity and Chekhovian despair — “You’re born and then you live and then you die. You never get to know the reason why.”

She changes chords only about seven times during the song, but found that mastering the instrument gave her more confidence. “I’ve always had a hard time singing onstage. And there was something about having a uke that made me find a new way. It gave me a psychological advantage,” she says.

Gilbert will singing onstage again early next year, when she appears in Posner’s new play “Life Sucks (or The Present Ridiculous)” at Theater J. That’s a free-and-loose adaptation of “Uncle Vanya,” and there will be more ukulele, Posner says. He probably won’t feature the instrument in “Sex with Strangers” at Signature Theatre, but there’s a good chance you’ll hear it in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” at the Folger.

“The ukulele may be turning up more often, but that doesn’t diminish it for me,” Posner says. “I’m not going to be that guy who started something — although I didn’t start this — and complain that everyone else is doing it. I have a deep affection for the ukulele, and that hasn’t changed.”

Tinseltown to Tysons

Alex Levy is leaving Tinseltown for Tysons Corner, and he is really, really excited about that.

In September, Levy will become only the second artistic and managing director of 1st Stage Theatre, the six-year-old company in the far Fairfax County ’burbs. Since earning an master of fine arts in directing from the University of California at Los Angeles in 2012, he has commuted cross-country between New York and Los Angeles, and says he’s ready to work full time at one theater. Before moving to L.A., Levy had a long association with Chicago’s Pegasus Players, and his résumé also includes a directing fellowship in Serbia and a State Department-funded trip to India.

“I’m excited to head back east,” Levy says. “It’s less about leaving Los Angeles for Virginia and more about joining 1st Stage. . . . What they’ve built is a remarkable company. It is just too exciting a place to pass up.”

1st Stage opened in 2008 as the brainchild of three teachers who thought Fairfax County needed a theater where young thespians could grow artistically on their way to possible professional careers. Founding artistic director Mark Krikstan is stepping down and hopes Levy will help the theater become a destination regional theater rather than a semi-professional suburban outpost. It helps considerably that as of last month, 1st Stage is just down the block from the Silver Line’s new Spring Hill Metro station, making the theater more accessible not only for patrons, but also for artists coming from the city to work at the theater. “That may be the most important impact of [the Metro],” Levy says.

Programmatically, 1st Stage has been all over the map, but Levy says more uniformity may be in the company’s future. He has worked with Krikstan to plan the next season, which will open Sept. 12 with Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out.” The area premiere of Richard Bean’s “One Man, Two Guvnors” follows. Next spring, Levy will direct Jon Marans’s two-man show “Old Wicked Songs,” and Michael Dove, artistic director of Forum Theatre, will make a guest appearance as the director of John Patrick Shanley’s hit-play-turned-movie, “Doubt.”

One more show has yet to be announced, and Levy says the eclecticism is to be expected for a troupe may have found a geographic foothold , but not an artistic niche. “The thing to remember about 1st Stage is that they’re a very young company,” Levy says. “They are on the way up.”

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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