It used to be considered a virtue when playwrights wanted to sneak in clever, beneath-the-surface thoughts without a proverbial wink — even a teensy one. As contemporary playwrights have become more interested in meta-theatricality as if to nod to Shakespeare’s notion that “All the world’s a stage,” those days of avoiding the wink seem quaint.
And if Aaron Posner wanted to comment on the nature of art, if it matters and what it means and to whom, he couldn’t have pulled a more fitting clay pigeon than Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, one of the masterpieces of world drama and the first of the Russian writer’s four major, and highly influential, plays.
Chekhov was all about subtext, and that’s the last thing Posner wants in Stupid … Bird, having its area premiere in a sharp, fiercely acted production at Stage West, directed by Emily Scott Banks. Audiences get this right off the bat, as the first line commands an action of them.
With a cast of seven — there’s a joke in the play about that being too big an ensemble for contemporary plays, which is true — the major characters in Chekhov’s original have an equivalent here.
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Conrad (Garret Storms, Chekhov’s Constantine) is a young theater maker with no interest in traditional narrative structures. He’s written a play to be performed by budding actress Nina (Alexandra Lawrence).
The performance happens on a stage on the wooded, lakeside property of his actress mother, Emma Arkadina (Laurel Whitsett), who’s there with her boyfriend, Doyle Trigorin (Chris Hury), a successful mainstream writer. The cook Mash (Kelsey Milbourn, Chekhov’s Masha) is in love with Con, who has a thing for Nina, who is infatuated with the dashing Trigorin, who reciprocates her crush.
Imparting some wisdom is Emma’s brother Eugene Sorn (Randy Pearlman, an amalgam of Chekhov’s Sorin and Dr. Dorn).
From the outset, it’s clear to the audience that the performers know they’re in a play, and Chekhov’s life-or-death dreariness will become a play toy.
In the first scene of the original, schoolmaster Medvedenko asks Masha why she always wears black, to which she replies, “I am in mourning for my life.” Here, when hanger-on Dev (Matthew Grondin) asks Mash the question, she is blunt: “Black is slimming.”
As Posner points out in directions, “contemplative is not our friend,” which of course would not be a note any director of The Seagull would give to the cast.
Banks has her ensemble attack this notion constantly. These actors are forthright and never forget they are not performing a “play within a play,” but more like a play surrounding something that is like a play, but closer to life.
No pretense or acknowledgment of artifice, if it’s there.
The playwright gives leeway for that to exist in this world, but this production design, with a set by Brian Clinnin, gives us realistic trees and structures that you might see in an actual production of The Seagull. There are more levels and playing surfaces — not just the outdoor stage on the property but a tree house stage, where Conrad, who drives the play, makes his grandest gestures.
Posner’s play is probably funnier if you know the Chekhov, but at Stage West, there are plenty of laughs to be had throughout.
It’s another smartly realized production of a contemporary play that breaks with traditional narratives and structures that this theater has gravitated to in recent years (also see Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play and Bootycandy).
Like Mr. Burns, it’s about what art is and can be. Except this time, does it matter?
That is the not-so-stupid question.
Costumes are by Derek C. Whitener, the Keller native and local theater director/actor who was attacked last weekend at a Dallas Target, and has made national and international news. Stage West has a donation jar and a QR code at the box office for donations to help him with medical expenses.