Don’t Miss This F#!*ing Play

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.

Richard Thompson as Trigorin, Samantha Severson as Conrad, Tony Caprile as Som, Tyler Gastelum as Dev. Jodi Ajanovich as Emma, and China Young as Mash. Photo courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

Richard Thompson as Trigorin, Samantha Severson as Conrad, Tony Caprile as Som, Tyler Gastelum as Dev. Jodi Ajanovich as Emma, and China Young as Mash. Photo courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

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.

Samantha Severson as Conrad (center), with Tony Caprile as Som and Tyler Gastelum as Dev. Photos courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

Samantha Severson as Conrad (center), with Tony Caprile as Som and Tyler Gastelum as Dev. Photos courtesy of Winding Road Theater.

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.

Love, Family, and Faith in Invisible Theatre’s The Busy World is Hushed.

by Gretchen Wirges

Cynthia Jeffery as Hannah and Steve Wood as Brandt. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Cynthia Jeffery as Hannah and Steve Wood as Brandt. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

The Busy World is Hushed, a play about the dynamics of family and faith, is a new production at Tucson’s Invisible Theatre. Hush, written by Keith Bunin, is the story of mother and Episcopal minister, Hannah, her newly appointed assistant Brandt, and Hannah’s son Thomas. Thomas returns home after years of chasing adventure to seek answers in his deceased father’s writing and Bible annotations in the hopes that he can unlock the secrets to his father’s death. The divide between Hannah and her son is palpable and strained from Thomas’ first, energetic entrance.

The story that follows is rife with conflict, passion, pain, and theological debate. We quickly learn about the desperate need for connection that each character seems lacking.  

The production was enjoyable, thanks to the talent of the amazing actors carrying the show.  But the direction, by guest director Nancy Davis Booth, lacked glaringly in the areas of staging and pacing. The actors’ movement was often very static, cold, and inorganic, which lead to moments of fear, anger, love, or lust that weren’t as believable as I believe they could have been. This was only further stunted by the pacing. The dialogue is fast. Too fast. The spaces between the lines, the words, and the actors are just as important to the storytelling as the lines themselves. And there weren’t many quiet moments of reflection and care that the script begged for.

Before lauding the talented cast, it must be acknowledged that the set and lighting design of the production were on point. The set was perfectly dressed and added a warmth that truly gave you the sense of being in someone’s cherished office and living space. And the lighting added a depth of ambiance and welcomed realism.

Steve Wood’s portrayal of the thoughtful, serious, emotionally shut-off Brandt is charming and yet heart-wrenching. Wood brings a subtle undertone of pain, fear, and longing to this difficult role. The character is struggling with issues surrounding being the caregiver for a gravely-ill father. The audience roots for him. I know I did. Having lost my own father, I was touched by Woods’ deft ability to tap into the love, loss, and even moments of laughter this role required. Watching Woods is always a joy. This is no exception.

The questioning son is played by John Noble. Noble’s ability to find moments of levity with physical humor and responses to the dialogue. The character’s lack of depth on the page likely lead to the lack of depth in the performance. While there were a few weighty moments that allowed Noble to experience more range in emotion, there weren’t enough of these to showcase the obvious talent of this young actor. The moments I didn’t believe him were the fault of the speed of the delivery and the misdirection, not the ability of the actor.

And Cynthia Jeffery. Cynthia. Jeffery. She is a revelation. She is a beam of light. She plays a grounded, gorgeously flesh and bone character. I believed her. I listened to her. I wanted to know more of what she had to say about pain and loss and love. Her acting is sublime. She does something that I swoon for as a director myself, she listens. She leans in to her cast-mates. She leans in to the dialogue. She leans in to the emotions. The only thing that limits her performance is a script that stifles what she, and Hannah, have to say.

Cynthia Jeffery as Hannah, John Noble as Thomas, and Steve Wood as Brandt. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Cynthia Jeffery as Hannah, John Noble as Thomas, and Steve Wood as Brandt. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Hannah is set up as a scholar, counselor, and mother. Her initial dialogue is strong and confident. But by the end of the play, we hear less and less from her and more and more from her spoiled, angry son. The ending moments where we have an opportunity for reconciliation and for the punctuation of her final thoughts on pain and loss are swallowed up by her male counterpart’s summation. She says nothing of true value on this topic. She defers her pain. She defers her own discoveries about her past and about her future.

The Episcopal church began allowing women to be ordained as ministers in 1974. That’s only 44 years ago. And still women in the church encounter roadblocks to advancement, including bold-faced discrimination. This discrimination is felt by the dismissal of Hannah’s character’s thoughts and theories. It’s felt deeply. When pushed to renounce her faith, deny her studies, and reject everything she believes in to win the love of her insistent son, she shuts down and goes to bed. In my opinion, the playwright was working out his frustration with the church and, likely, his own mother. The vitriol cast on both were not confronted. Bunin intentionally stifled the primary, informed, sole female voice in this piece. And while I left The Busy World is Hushed feeling frustrated by the directing and annoyed with the story, I was excited and thrilled at the way the actors managed to shine through.

The Busy World is Hushed is playing Wednesday to Friday at 7:30 and Saturday and Sunday at 3pm through November 11th. There is an additional evening performance on Saturday Nov 10th, 7:30pm.  Tickets are $35, and can be purchased at invisibletheatre.com or by calling 822-9721.