The new play at Woolly Mammoth, “Stupid [Expletive] Bird,” won’t start until you tell it to. An actor reveals a card instructing the audience to say “start the [expletive] play.” The cast then waits until someone gives them the go-ahead.
This lets you know right away that Aaron Posner’s new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” is a departure from the original. But Chekhov knew all about departure.
When Chekhov’s plays premiered in the late 19th century, they were revolutionary. In other works of the time, characters would constantly declare their feelings to the audience. Chekhov’s use of subtext — of showing what the characters felt from what they didn’t say — would completely change the way people thought about drama.
In “Stupid [Expletive] Bird” (and “The Seagull”) a young playwright, Con (Brad Koed), struggles to create surprising theater. He wants to change the world, hold onto his girlfriend and annoy his actress mom. Every character is in love with someone who doesn’t love them back, and they wrestle with art, aging and the meaninglessness of life.
“It’s a sacred cow,” Posner, who also directed, says of “The Seagull.” “And that makes it more fun to take shots at.”
Chekhov’s classic is a fertile playground for Posner. “I love the play, but it’s all so earnest,” he says. “It comes from such a heartfelt place that it makes me want to slap the characters around a little bit. So I did.”
Posner began writing the script as a personal project, not meant for production. That gave him freedom, which persisted even after the play made it into Woolly Mammoth’s season.
“I gave myself permission to do whatever occurred to me, whatever bounced around inside me,” he says. That includes frank conversations with the audience, monologues Chekhov never would have imagined for his characters and original songs about despair plunked out on a ukulele.
Posner is an experienced adaptor — he brought novels “The Chosen” and “My Name Is Asher Lev” to the stage. His intention was to faithfully depict another author’s story.
“Here my goal is the opposite,” he says. “It’s to use the brilliance of Chekhov as a jumping-off point for my own explorations.”Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW; through June 23, $15-$68; 202-393-3939. (Gallery Place)