With its wonderful and often hilarious new production, “Stupid F##king Bird,” Aaron Posner’s modernization of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” directed by Susi Damilano, the San Francisco Playhouse has earned its place as one of the best, major theater companies in the Bay Area. What started as a company that put on amazing productions — with terrific acting and directing, as well as impressively realistic and detailed sets — in a tiny hole-in-the-wall theater on Sutter St that was always selling out, has now blossomed into a bigger company in a bigger space.
Although SF Playhouse made the move to its larger theater on Post St two years ago, it’s taken some time to sort out the growing pains: how could they transfer their trademark brand of intimate theater to a larger space, where bigger and brighter productions were expected? Although some productions have been great in the new space, like “The Motherf##ker with the Hat,” sometimes the ambition of the production couldn’t quite match the space, as in last summer’s “Into the Woods,” which wasn’t quite grand enough for the space despite its very strong cast.
Featuring a cast of seven actors who have to find a balance between pathos, humour, the absurd, and incorporating a meta-narrative, “Stupid F##ing Bird” is bigger and better in every sense. The set fills the stage, with a bridge stage right, that doubles as a stage within-a-stage, and a cabin stage left, which works to divide the stage in the first act and as an interior space in the second act. A series of silk panels upstage set the scene and serve as areas for entrances and exits. There’s just as much detail and precision in this set as we’d expect in the old space — the tap in the cabin even has running water — but it’s been expanded to create a series of more intimate spaces on stage, dividing the space.
As in “The Seagull,” “Stupid F##king Bird” follows a bourgeois family gathering in rural Russia where tensions and the troubles of unrequited love come to a head. Aspiring experimental playwright Con (Adam Magill) has come to visit his uncle Sorn (Charles Shaw Robinson), a doctor and landowner, and to showcase his latest work. There, he’s forced to contend with his mother, Emma (Carrie Paff), a vain, narcissistic aging actress, who is barely capable of expressing affection. Emma has brought along her lover, the renowned playwright Trig (Johnny Moreno). While Con pines after the young actress Nina (Martha Brigham), who he’s cast in his play, Nina pines after Con, while the servant Mash (El Beh) lusts after Con and Con’s friend Dev (Joseph Estlack) pines for Mash. It’s a perfect storm of emotions and egos, which erupts with humour and devastating drama.
Obsessed with new forms of theater as the solution to the world’s problems, Con has constructed an absurd play that largely consists of its star repeating, as if with great depth, “Here we are.” It seems ridiculous at the start, but as the play progresses, we get the sense that all of these characters could learn a thing or two about living in the moment, settling, and dealing with reality. Are new forms what we need or better versions of old forms? Do we really need to reinvent the wheel when we have Shakespeare to build on? Posner toys with these ideas as his characters frequently break the fourth wall to comment on the action, remind us we’re watching a play, and to comment on their characters as themselves. My favourite is when Con sizes up his audience: “gays, Jews, retired academics, and people who did plays in high school.”
Packed full of witty one-liners “Stupid F##king Bird” is more obviously and immediately funny than “The Seagull,” if not as structurally sound or clever, which should serve to engage a modern and younger audience and maybe even interest them in checking out this classic of theatre. The immensely talented cast is easily able to deliver jokes, impassioned speeches, and melodramatic turns, all on a dime.
El Beh’s no-nonsense Masha is a particular standout; Beh was also easily the best thing about “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Into the Woods” at the SF Playhouse. As Con, Adam Magill has mastered the angry young artistic man, with wry wit and a juvenile manner: his Con a ham and a crowd-pleaser, the one most frequently breaking the fourth wall. Joseph Estlack as Dev may have the fewest lines but he’s a rich performer to watch when he listens, always engaged and responding with intelligence. Veteran actors Johnny Moreno and Carrie Paff are also very strong, but their characters are more limited: they’re perfect, but Emma isn’t written as anything richer than an aging starlet and Trig is just a tad more complicated than an arrogant, lecherous, lone genius. Although Sorn is probably the most thankless roll, Charles Shaw Robinson makes him a sad, quiet presence even as he works to lighten everyone’s mood, and Robinson is a whiz on the clarinet.