by Gretchen Wirges
I walked into the Cabaret theater at the Temple of Music and Art, and quickly found my seat in the front row. Perusing the program, the other patrons, and the visible set, I notice that cast of Winding Road’s Stupid F#!*ing Bird have started to trickle onto the stage becoming part of the scenery, part of the fabric of the space. Another member of the cast walks on, takes center, and says “The play will begin when someone says: ‘Start the fucking play’.” So of course, I did, and the play began.
Stupid F#!*ing Bird, written by American playwright Aaron Posner, is an adapted version of Anton Chekov’s The Seagull. Russian drama is heavy, dark, and often very abstract. This adaptation is all of those things and more, in the best sense of each word. The play unfolds by introducing us to an ensemble of flawed characters looking for love and truth.
The play, directed by Maria Caprile, centers around struggling playwright Conrad, played by Samantha Severson. He struggles not just with his work, but with his relationships. He seems to yearn for connection and honest love from his wide-eyed, ambitious romantic partner Nina, played by Liz Claire , as well as his selfish, successful mother, Emma played by Jodi Ajanovic. Emma struggles with her connection with her son, her brother Sorn, played by Tony Caprile, and her romantic partner Trigorin, played by Richard Thompson. Also part of dynamic struggle is Mash, played by China Young, who has unrequited love for Conrad, and yet is quietly pursued by Dev, played by Tyler Gastelum.
I see a lot of theatre, and it’s been quite a while since I’ve been so enraptured by a play. The ensemble’s honest portrayal of these flawed characters was heartbreaking, and exciting, and such a joy to watch unfold.
Young’s beautiful portrayal of Mash is dark and tender and also humorous, allowing us to identify with her emotional rawness and sense of yearning. Gastelum’s Dev is sweet and grounded and kind and such a subtle standout in this incredibly talented cast. I rooted for him, and hurt for him when rebuffed. Thompson’s Trigorin is smarmy, sexy and yet wonderfully indicative of creative genius (of both the character and the actor). Emma, in the hands of Ajanovic was beautifully reminiscent of theatre greats like Carol Burnett who lace their character’s pain with humor and self-effacing energy. Near the end of the play, she delivers a monologue to Trigorin that took my breath away. Claire’s portrayal of Nina is sweet and tragic. She deftly handles the arc of this character from lightness to dark. Caprile’s Sorn is subtle, and hovers around the periphery of the play with great intention.
And then there’s Severson. Let me take a deep breath for a moment before I go on because she is Just. That. Good. Severson’s portrayal of Conrad’s descent into depression and desperation is nothing short of magical. At the beginning of the play, I noticed that some of the speeches were a little in the pocket, a little rehearsed, a little thin. But Severson unfolds into this play with a beautiful sense of intention and understanding of the demands of such a heavy role. I hurt when she hurt, I angered when she angered, I leaned in when she fell silent.
This was only the second performance of the run of “Stupid Fucking Bird”. As an actor and a director myself, I know what gifts come from the duration of the totality of a play. One performance is only a small sliver of the gifts of the whole. Each performance brings new understanding of the characters, the intent, and the impact of the content. Sometimes, a revelation comes late in the run that you wish you’d had at the beginning. And I remember thinking while watching this cast, that I want to get tickets for the final performance of this show. Because I want to see what they discover in this journey.
There is a monologue that Severson delivers as Conrad about the intent of art and the needs for new forms of theater. And the play quickly becomes self-referential by directly addressing the audience and calling out the play within a play within a play. There were times I felt uncomfortable, but I think that’s what great art, and this production in particular, does superbly.
One of my only criticisms of the play was in regards to the set. While attractive and well thought-out, one of the central visual pieces was incredibly distracting. There is a large wooden platform that morphs from dock/stage to the flooring of the home on stage. The wood of the platform would creak so loudly every time someone stepped onto it, that it would sometimes take me out of the moment. Hopefully it’s a simple fix because the rest of the setting is perfectly adorned in its warmth and detail.
My only other criticism was in regards to the gendering of the character of Conrad. We are in an exciting time of gender and cultural play in casting. With women embodying exciting roles typically inhabited by men, I wonder if we do a disservice to this effort by having the character remain male. Why couldn’t Conrad/Con/Connie be female? It wouldn’t change the story. The pain of loss and love and family and disappointment and depression isn’t restricted to gender-specific experience. When I saw that Severson was cast as Conrad, I yearned for the experience of a gender-swapped role. I wonder what more nuance she could bring to her already powerful portrayal. The more we can see characters as bodies of experience and not only as a pigeon-holed color, gender, or age, the more we can explore the core human experience of these characters and find new connections and meaning.
Bottom line, I implore you to go see this play. Challenge yourself to break out of the norm and into new forms of art and theatre like Winding Road’s production of “Stupid Fucking Bird”. The script is challenging and the cast accepts that grand challenge by knocking it clean out of the proverbial park. As soon as you stop reading this review, click on this link and buy your tickets to see it. Today.
Stupid F#!*ing Bird is playing Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm through February 17th. Call Winding Road Theater at 520-401-3626 or visit windingroadtheater.org for more information about this show and the rest of their season.