“Start the f*cking play!”
As an audience member and a (usually) willing spectator in the events that unfold before you, there is a certain element of participation and responsibility that you must accept. You are never truly only a spectator. By engaging in the act of watching for pleasure, for voyeurism, for necessity, etc., you wittingly or unwittingly engage in the process of actively altering the dynamic of the of the show. You become actively involved in and responsible for the tenor of the performances, the interpretability of the nuances embedded in the design, wardrobe, and movement of the players on stage. The relationship between audience and dramaturge, audience and actors, audience and set, is never so stagnant or monolithic as to allow the audience member to watch unscathed, undetached, and free of responsibility. That being said, the demand made by the plummeting misanthrope Conrad (Chris Cattell) to the audience attending Stupid Fucking Bird, to actually start the play by uttering the phrase “start the fucking play,” is more of an emotional high-order than is expected in the audience-play/actor dynamic.
This is somewhat of an innocuous, quaintly postmodernist demand that is made of the audience at the beginning of the play, and the true gravity of the moment, like many of the interactions and moments in Aaron Posner’s 2013 play Stupid Fucking Bird, is not truly felt until the denouement of the show. 12 Peers Theater’s re-envisioning of the play intended to modernize (or, really, postmodernize) Chekov’s Seagull—a sort of grandiose tragicomedy which ruminates on the vexations of art, creation, love, identity, and the disastrous muddling of those elements—is at its most provocative when it nestles moments of banal trauma, stinging snark, and devastating, unrequited devotion into the melodramatic antics and, at time, distracted plot. Bird is a sort of meta-drama, which makes the demand at the beginning all the more important, as it chronicles one playwright (Conrad) as he struggles to make the most innovative, scintillating, nonconventional work of theatrical art to prove himself to himself; prove himself to his lover/muse, Nina (Sarah Chelli); and prove himself, with scathing resentment, to his mother, aging mega-star Emma (Maura Underwood).
The overarching narrative, of course, is not as simple (or not as confidently masculine) as it seems. Conrad is tangled in an endless game (mostly of his own creation) to simultaneously win and reject his mother’s attention and adoration; (an outstandingly pathetic game of “she loves me/she loves me not” is a testament to his struggle). Emma is desperately trying to show the world she isn’t worthy of their relentless hatred; Nina is miserably caught up in a world of coming to terms with herself through men or the art of men; Conrad’s archetypally embittered friend Mash (Sara Ashley Fisher) is letting her art suffer because of her antipathy-filled, unrequited love for Conrad; and Dev (Matt Henderson) is endlessly self-defeating in his attempts to support everyone despite being a self-proclaimed “boob.” The action of the play more or less revolves around the psychological decomposition and fragility of Con, and the matrices of damage his toxicity creates in the lives of those around him. As such, the stage design and lighting employed throughout the show expertly and subtly convey the bleak claustrophobia of mental collapse. Coupled with the choreography of the piece, the set design keeps the audience firmly locked into the action and psychoses of the players on stage—in a sense, binding and intensifying the responsibility the audience has to the show. Lighting designer Gregory Messmer and scenic designer Hank Bullington deserve praise not only for their collaborative success but for their individual contributions to the outstanding design of the show.
The players involved in Bird are often doing extra work of performing beyond a script that is centered around a white man screaming about his overwhelmingly tragic melancholy life. While masterfully written, the story is, nevertheless, one about the wild self-absorption of one very entitled man (and the real anguish and stress it causes those around him) that often feels more authentically caught up in that man’s self-absorption than satirizing it. Chris Cattell is wonderfully unhinged as the unraveling Conrad, and his energy plays off beautifully against Stefan Lingenfelter’s in his performance as Trigorin, the supremely talented author attached to Emma (who ultimately begins Con’s aforementioned unraveling). Matt Henderson truly is a scene stealer, along with David Maslow in his role of the moral compass, Sorn, and their unfettered, emotionally grounded (and at times, blistering) presences give the show a certain luminescent quality. Special note should be given to Maura Underwood (also brilliantly doubling as musical director), who takes on the unpleasant task of imbuing complexity and burdened sympathy to the character of Emma, and does so with memorable aplomb and adroitness.
Stupid Fucking Bird is marvelous, if not complicated and at times problematic two hours of theatre. From performances to direction to design, the show is exquisitely executed. The level of care involved in the production of the show allows the audience to interact with the more problematic elements of the plot with sensitivity. Moreover, as a meta-play, the show continually challenges the ethics involved in spectatorship, and what the audiences’ responsibility is in taking part in a dramaturgical experience such as this. When we choose to “start the fucking play,” what are the ramifications for ourselves, for the actors, for perception? What do we take on? What do we leave behind? It’s worth checking out a Stupid Fucking Bird to begin to figure that out.
Stupid Fucking Bird runs now through August 12th. For tickets and other details visit https://www.artful.ly/store/events/13972
Photos by Greg Messmer