Stage Struck Review

Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

Tag Archives: Anton Chekhov

Passion is Still Stupid: In “Stupid Fucking Bird” Chekhov’s “The Seagull” speaks to a new age

The cast confronts the audience

The cast confronts the audience

This show has now been extended through August 10

Playing with classics has become part of the theatrical landscape. One can either go for staging, say, Shakespeare or Moliere or Sophocles in an alternate time period or social reference, or one can take the conceptual theme of the original, and the main characters, and turn the play on its ear. For example, several years ago The Theatre at Boston Court produced Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” reset (with distinct cultural adaptation) in a China on the verge of revolution – a shift which worked startlingly well.

Now, once again at The Theatre at Boston Court, this time in concert with Circle X Theatre Company, one finds a revision of another Chekhov classic, “The Seagull.” “Sort of adapted” by Aaron Posner, the play “Stupid Fucking Bird” highlight’s Chekhov’s essential ethos – the idea that people who become so wrapped up in themselves create their own tragedies – and places it in a modern framework. It works, absolutely, and for several reasons: Chekhov’s theme was an essential human one which transcends time, the adaptation is clever, concise and passionate, and the direction and performance are done with complete conviction and absolute craft.

The script trims down and adapts the character list, but the story is still the traditional angsty knot. Conrad, the bitter son of actress Emma Arkadina, is a creator of dubious performance art his family belittles. He lives on his mother’s estate, working with and worshiping a young actress named Nina, who does not return his affections, while the woman who runs the house, Mash, holds her grand passion for Conrad close to her despairing heart. Dev, the slightly dim, good-hearted friend of Conrad’s, adores Mash but knows he has little chance there. Emma fears encroaching age, and fights it off by keeping famed author Doyle Trigorin on a short leash, at least until he notices Nina. All the while, aging uncle Dr. Sorn, watches with a combination of kindness and frustration. And so it begins.

If all of this sounds like a soap opera, you are correct, except for the essential Chekhovian concept that all of this internal wrangling, despair and high feeling is elementally ridiculous – a product of each of the characters’ emotional myopia. In the hands of director Michael Michetti, that rings through all the drama, as it plays out in a tight production with a strong and engaging cast. Add to this the extra thrill of Posner’s Thornton Wilder-style dissolving of the fourth wall, including actors stepping into and out of character, and you’re looking at something compelling and genuinely fun.SFB_lead

Will Bradley leads the cast in every way as Conrad, vibrating with intensity and a kind of emotional impotence. In both energy and engagingly dark approach he is matched by Charlotte Gulezian’s habitually depressed Mash. Adam Silver creates Mash’s and Conrad’s ultimate foil in the easy-going, upbeat, pleasantly dim Dev. Amy Pietz gives Emma a gentle undercurrent of desperation, and a grasping need which proves visceral.

Matthew Floyd Miller’s calm, detached, even opportunistic Doyle becomes physically and emotionally above all the petty commitments at his feet, while Zarah Mahler’s aura of fragility places Nina distinctly in both Doyle’s and Conrad’s crosshairs. Arye Gross gives the good doctor the air of a man weighed down by his own desire to be empathetic to these folk, like a huge, human sigh.

Under Michetti, this all moves quite rapidly, allowing no time for the dismalness to settle, and shifting in and out of the play’s supposed setting with the efficiency of a light switch. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s modular set pieces prove both realistic and representational, allowing for quick shifts in scene and mood. Sean Cawelti’s projections often provide that mood, and flesh out settings artfully.

In short, “Stupid Fucking Bird” brings the essential Chekhovian message to a new era, a new language, and a new immediacy without losing those elements which give it something to say about the human condition: finely tuned characters wrestling with stunted emotions doing melodramatic things which get them nowhere, held up to a mirror that makes them look somewhat silly. Thus it proves both wrenching and humorous, visceral and cerebral. If you love to watch people play with classic themes, you’ll find this one engrossing.

One word of warning: as the name may suggest, this show is not for children, deserving at least an “R” rating on the standard scale for both language and nudity. Still, for most adults, i.e.: those willing to take that as integral to context, it is most certainly a show to see.

What: “Stupid Fucking Bird” When: Through July 27, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with added performances 8 p.m. Wednesday July 16 and 23 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34, with senior and group discounts available Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

Chekhov For Laughs! – Christopher Durang’s great, comic “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”

Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole and Mark Blum in Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning  “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”  [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole and Mark Blum in Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Christopher Durang’s plays have always been remarkable for their unique combination of wry humor, human insight and respect for the craft of theater itself – the things you can do with a play you can’t as easily do in any other medium. He also makes fun of his own genre with as much artfulness as is possible to mount, which I first encountered in the 1981 one-act “An Actor’s Nightmare”, and now in his terrifically funny, Tony-winning send-up of Anton Chekhov, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

Now at the Mark Taper Forum, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” smashes together the most telling elements from any number of Chekhovian works, and transplants it to the modern U.S., where it all begins to appear fairly ridiculous. In the process, the play makes fun of the film industry, bad writing, Disney, and any number of other things, ending up so full of cultural references that they alone makes the show roaringly comical. For the Chekhov aficionado, and I admit to being one, the production actually is (and usually I hate using this term, as it is so often misapplied) absolutely hysterical at times.

Vanya, Sonia and Masha are the now-aging children of college professors who named them after Chekhovian characters. While Masha has been off becoming a famed film star, Vanya and Sonia have stayed behind in their Bucks County home. There they nursed their parents through their final years, but then ended up staying on unsure of how to proceed. Now, Sonia reflects on her empty life and her status as the adopted child, making an occupation out of negativism and despair. Vanya quietly longs for companionship, and mourns the treasures of youth.

David Hull appalls Kristine Nielsen with a hilarious "reverse strip tease", as Spike [photo: Craig Schwartz]

David Hull appalls Kristine Nielsen with a hilarious “reverse strip tease”, as Spike [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Then Masha comes home for a rare visit, trailing a dim, physically gorgeous young aspiring actor names Spike in her wake. He, in turn, meets the girl visiting next door: Nina, the very young, would-be actress who idolizes Masha even as Masha sees her as a threat. All the while, the cleaning woman, Cassandra, offers up messages of foreboding, in a crazed mix of ancient Greek, voodoo, modern television references and observational wisdom.

And that doesn’t tell you the half of it. Mark Blum’s Vanya has the wistful yearnings of his namesake, a calm which ties the piece together some, and then utters a most delightfully out-of-control Russian-style harangue against modern society with a rich and memorable passion. One will never look at postage stamps, a repeated reference, quite the same way again. Kristine Nielsen proves absolutely brilliant as the morose Sonia, turning her melancholy on and off like a switch, and at one critical point offering up the best Maggie Smith imitation you can imagine – by itself fall-down funny.

Shalita Grant as the wise and weird Cassandra [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Shalita Grant as the wise and weird Cassandra [photo: Craig Schwartz]


Christine Ebersole gives Masha an interesting balance of self-absorbed emotional hyperbole and practical sense, in both verbal and physical presence. David Hull’s hunky young Spike, played as thoroughly for stereotype as possible, makes nice, upbeat, simple contrast to the angsty characters around him, as does Liesel Allen Yeager’s wide-eyed, innocent enthusiasm as Nina. Shalita Grant proves a true treasure as the sharply defined, practical and self-contained Cassandra.

Director David Hyde Pierce builds upon the original direction of Nicholas Martin with the expectedly sure sense of comic timing and contrast. The beautiful coordination of all these very recognizable characters into a single whole which neither neglects the subtle comic nudges nor overdoes a one of them is a wondrous thing in itself. David Korins’ set design creates a very real space for these characters to cling. Costume designer Gabriel Berry gets a special nod for creating exactly the right costume-party costumes at a pivotal moment in the storyline.

Indeed, what proves most lovely and relaxing about “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” has to be the sheer quality of every aspect of the thing. Acting, writing, directing, and every visual component work together to create a single moment of intelligent wit, filled with satisfying surprises and a few bits of ardent social commentary. In the midst of the upheavals of daily existence, I cannot think of a better way to spend a couple of hours.

What: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” When: Through March 9, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $90 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Theatre Movement Bazaar and Theatre at Boston Court dance with Chekhov in “The Treatment”

Hospital bureaucracy faces down its demoralized chief in The Theatre at Boston Court and Theatre Movement Bazaar production of "The Treatment"

Note: Apologies for the late posting of this review, due to medical issues.

Playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov must rank with some observers as among the most misunderstood authors in the canon of great playwrights. In his own time the plays he wrote as send-ups of the futile obsessions of human nature – especially aiming at the Russian landed class – were produced by the great Constantin Stanislavski to great success, but as if they were Greek tragedies. Companies elsewhere followed suit, and only in the past half century has his work often appeared as the satire it is.

His even more satiric, meanderingly brilliant short stories divided critics in their own time, seen as either brilliant or lazy, their bleak, wry humor ahead of its time. Yet, from this stream of consciousness style come the first blushes of absurdism, especially in those short stories.

All of which makes the production of “The Treatment” currently at The Theatre at Boston Court a logical progression. Adapted by Richard Alger from the Chekhov short story “Ward 6,” and directed/choreographed by Tina Kronis, this joint production by Boston Court and Alger/Kronis’ Theatre Movement Bazaar highlights the absurdity in both the tale and the telling.

Theatre Movement Bazaar bends the boundaries between traditional theater and performance art, using choreographed movements to emphasize themes of synchronicity, abandonment or individualism in the characters portrayed. A cluster of low level bureaucrats move as one, like a Greek chorus. A man of habit moves with a rhythmic beat underscoring the sameness of his days. Even the gender of the players becomes secondary to the story, and a small cast creates the larger framework for the tale being told by whipping in and out of costumes and attitudes as needs present.

The story examines the downfall of Dr. Ragin, a once-fine healer assigned to and beaten down by the role of Chief of Staff of an obscure government hospital. There his attempts to improve care have encountered such resistance he no longer bothers to appear at most meetings, or do much in the way of rounds, confirmed in his feeling that he can do no good there anyway. Then he meets Gromov, an occupant of the hospital psych ward. Desperate for intellectual conversation, he becomes fascinated by Gromov’s educated but twisted view of the world, and begins to unravel.

Mark Doerr makes the doomed Ragin personable, precise and deeply needy. As his deputy, and the consummately detached bureaucrat, Nich Kauffman provides the cold table upon which Ragin’s character is dissected. Mark Skeens manages articulate madness as Gromov, and along with an ensemble of Jake Eberle, Matt Shea and Jacob Sidney, creates all the many characters which people this terrible, intimate, fascinating telling of the ironic Chekhovian tale.

Ellen McCartney’s flexibly period costuming allows for quick partial changes and sudden shifts in tone. Jeff Webster’s scenic design creates a constant flow by virtue of fascinating movable panels. The movement of these becomes part of the choreography in a play where motion speaks as much as words. The entire piece is done without an intermission, which makes sense in that one should not interrupt what is essentially one long, fluid movement.

“The Treatment” is innovative theater, but then that’s what both companies involved with this production are all about. It’s a chance to encounter less-well-known Chekhov, which for me is always a singular delight. More than that, images from this piece will hum in your head afterward, as great storytelling always does, allowing the nuances in the cracks between sentences to shine ever more brightly. This is, by definition, the kind of thing theater can do which no other medium can match.

What: “The Treatment” When: Through March 25, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and Wednesday, March 21; 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $29 student/senior Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com

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