The rude, childish title of “Stupid F---ing Bird” turns out to be smack on the money for Aaron Posner’s savvy, petulant blitz through Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Posner’s new play is less an adaptation of Chekhov’s landmark drama than a funny, moving slugfest, a ripe mashup of mock and awe.
That blend hits a sweet spot with the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where a half dozen images of Chekhov’s face loom on the back wall of Misha Kachman’s set. “Life sucks,” Chekhov said, only not in so many words. In Posner’s update, those are the exact words, repeatedly.
And as “The Seagull” brazenly challenged the theatrical forms of its day — plot-fueled melodramas that Chekhov resisted with his subtle chronicles of ever-baffling human behavior — so too does Posner unzip dramatic style. Let us count the ways:
●As the gloomy Mash (the update of Chekhov’s Masha), Kimberly Gilbert plays ukulele and sings fetching original songs by James Sugg that feature bummer lyrics by Posner.
●Kachman leaves the stage as open as possible for the first act, even exposing the backstage rigging. Later, the action is crammed into a small modern kitchen so realistic that a character uses a blender to make a smoothie.
●A post-show discussion with the audience breaks out about 45 minutes into the play.
All of this is more restless than new, yet director Howard Shalwitz’s shrewdly governed, zestfully acted show keeps bursting with both heat and light. Posner roughly keeps to Chekhov’s plot and faithfully sticks to “The Seagull’s” themes as an anguished young man named Treplev — here renamed Con — puts on a radical but poetically dense new show in front of his spotlight-hogging mother, an established stage star.
“It’s a site-specific performance event,” a character helpfully explains of the performance Con cooks up. “It’s kind of like a play, but not so stupid.”
As Con, Brad Koed rants about the idiocies of the world and of theater — the play is loaded with insider barbs about the stage — with the archetypal fury of an angry young man, half bent over and jabbing his finger at his targets, including himself. But per Chekhov, his frustrations are only partly creative. Heartbreak threatens to crush nearly everyone.
Con loves the desirable young actress Nina, but so does the famous writer Doyle. Doyle is currently attached to Emma, Con’s mom. That means double devastation when Katie deBuys’s nervous yet aggressive Nina sidles toward Cody Nickell’s cool yet stammering Doyle in the cozy kitchen late at night.
More from the lovelorn: Mash wants Con. Dev (Darius Pierce) wants Mash. No wonder Mash sings delicate songs, Dev masters the dry quip and Con writes art that aims to tear everything down.
“So much feeling,” murmurs Emma’s older brother, Sorn, and from the delicate opening dialogue between Gilbert’s tormented Mash and Pierce’s witty but morose Dev, it’s true. Pierce shows remarkable timing, pausing perfectly before twisting a line toward laughter or disappointment. The entire ensemble is exacting as Posner switches his terms of engagement with Chekhov so savagely that he sometimes threatens to strip the gears.
Do the characters say something “sucks” too much? Possibly. Is it too on-the-nose to have the actors sit in a line and articulate exactly what their characters want? You fear it is, yet the sequence is deft and hilarious.
The pinpoint cast, which includes Kate Eastwood Norris as the glamorous and formidable Emma and Rick Foucheux as the amusing and tragic Sorn, is superbly balanced. The design plays with Chekhovian imagery — you know what realm you’re in as soon as you see a large tree branch hovering over a dining table with a samovar — and straddles period so easily that the bearded Nickell, silhouetted in the wee hours and offering a monologue about writing, briefly evokes the ghost of Chekhov himself.
The show cagily pulls the pins on the grenades that characterize Posner’s play; sometimes it blows Chekhov up, and sometimes the play explodes with a genuinely Chekhovian release of emotion. The show is smart enough to have it both ways: It mines “The Seagull” for classical heft even while giving it the bird.
by Aaron Posner. Directed by Howard Shalwitz. Lights, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Laree Lentz; sound design, James Sugg. About two hours and 15 minutes. Through June 23 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net.