Do to Chekhov’s “The Seagull” what you will, I suppose. Pepper the dialogue with f-bombs; give Masha a ukulele and Konstantin a laptop; add a bit of nudity. Break down the barriers between actor and audience: have characters inform us they know that they’re in a play, and dole out to every one of them a confessional monologue to make crystal clear where they’re coming from.
What transformation, though, have you wrought? A shallow one, unfortunately. All of these fashionable conceits playwright Aaron Posner crams into a contemporary remodeling of “The Seagull,” in a meta-theatrical smorgasbord he titles, brazenly enough, “Stupid F---ing Bird.” The piece was a triumph for Woolly Mammoth Theatre in its world premiere a year ago, so much so that as the company did with its successful mounting of “Clybourne Park,” it has brought “Stupid F---ing Bird” back with its original cast, for a return engagement.
Having missed the initial run, I also missed out on sharing the affection many expressed for the play at the time. Now that I have seen it, though, I am left to wrestle with my own less rapturous response. Maybe my expectations were too high — or maybe I’ve just seen too many “Seagull” adaptations (one set in the Hamptons; another conjured on 16th Street NW, to name a couple). What you learn, in any event, is that just as an electronic device runs out of juice, so can a dramatic one.
And devices this “Bird” offers in abundance, a showy surfeit that may account for why, on top of the energetic tweeness of director Howard Shalwitz’s production, the play’s aggressive self-consciousness has the effect of turning “The Seagull” into something that feels exceedingly artificial.
Posner, a talented director of Shakespeare and an astute adapter, as illustrated by his Theater J version of “The Chosen” at Arena Stage, conducts a more elaborate dramatic experiment here, of a sort that might have been formulated in an academic lab. Although little in Chekhovian melancholy lends itself naturally to American characters, “Stupid F---ing Bird” does manage fairly faithfully to transpose the plot and personages of “The Seagull” from czarist Russia to modern America; the performances are all perfectly adequate.
Into the household we go of successful stage actress Emma (Kate Eastwood Norris) — Madam Arkadina in “The Seagull” — and the people in her orbit. They include her tortured son, the would-be playwright Con (Konstantin in the original play and portrayed by Brad Koed); her lover, the celebrated writer Doyle, based on Chekhov’s character Trigorin (Cody Nickell), and young, aspiring actress Nina (Katie DeBuys), with whom Con is in love, but who loves Doyle. (A familiarity with the original definitely gives you a leg up.)
Accessibility and that much more oft-cited dramatic virtue, “relatability,” seem to be the project’s goals, as it attempts to dissect the permutations of despair and unrequited love in Chekhov’s play. The title might lead you to think Posner is perpetrating an attack on the work, but he’s riffing here on Chekhov, rather than roughing him up. In his approach, he’s apparently inspired by Con’s/Konstantin’s anguished, rebellious cry for art to be adventurous, to boldly adopt new forms.
So what you get is a staging suggesting that “Stupid F---ing Bird” is taking Con at his word, that its embrace of “new” forms — some more novel than others — is a bulwark against stuffiness. Infuriated by the calcified state of American theater, for instance, Koed’s Con at one point steps out of the play and turns his scorn on us, as if to try to jostle us out of our torpor. In another scene, the actors pull up chairs to vent their characters’ spleens and enunciate their hopes — a chorus of private confession. And in a recurring bit, Mash (the renamed Masha, played by Kimberly Gilbert) articulates her brand of nihilism in reductive melodies by James Sugg. “You’re born/ And then you live/ And then you die,” she sings, “And you never know the reason why.”
These episodes are not allowed to coalesce, and so neither do the tragic and comic strands of “The Seagull.” The psychic pain in Chekhov is drowned out by “Bird’s” histrionics. Unlike a piece such as “Clybourne Park,” conceived by Bruce Norris as an imaginative enlargement on the events of its source play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Stupid F---ing Bird” feels like no match for the work that inspired it.
by Aaron Posner. Directed by Howard Shalwitz. Sets, Misha Kachman; costumes, Laree Lentz; lighting, Colin K. Bills; original music and sound, James Sugg; fight choreography, Joe Isenberg. With Rick Foucheux, Darius Pierce. About 2 hours and 40 minutes. Tickets, $35-$75. Through Aug.17 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit www.woollymammoth.net or call 202-393-3939.