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This Chekhov adaptation warms up an otherwise cold-climate play

Director Aaron Posner’s update to Chekhov’s The Seagull would seem to be performed primarily for an audience who would be reflexively skeptical of the playwright and wouldn’t normally relate to his passive-aggressive, cold-climate characters the way many Canadians do.

Josie Di Luzio

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Stupid Fucking Bird
Written by
Aaron Posner
Directed by
Vinetta Strombergs
Actors
Craig Lauzon, Daniel Maslany, Karen Knox
Venue
Pop-Up Theatre
City
Toronto

Even if you've never seen Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, you probably know Masha's first line. After the young woman is asked why she wears black, she replies: "I'm in mourning for my life."

In American playwright Aaron Posner's entertaining new riff on the 1895 play, however, Masha – now going by the nickname "Mash" – has a different, sarcastic answer: "Black is slimming."

She's still struggling with unrequited love – but prefers to pull out a ukulele to sing a song about it: "Life is a muddle, life is a chore / Life is a burden, life is a bore."

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That the title of Posner's updated adaptation is Stupid Fucking Bird is a signal (a self-consciously edgy one) that this is an irreverent Chekhov adaptation. But it's not too irreverent: the play – getting its Toronto premiere directed by Vinetta Strombergs in a pop-up space next to the Royal Alexandra Theatre – does largely follow the same plot.

Famous actress Emma Arkadina (Sarah Orenstein) is at her summer home with her new lover, the famous author Trigorin (Craig Lauzon) – and all the young folks around them have fallen in love with someone who doesn't love them back.

Tutor Dev (Brendan Hobin) is in love with part-time cook Mash (Rachel Cairns), who is in love with Emma's pretentious performance-artist/playwright son, Con (Daniel Maslany), who is in love with the aspiring actress Nina (Karen Knox), who was in love with Con – until she met Trigorin.

Rounding out the dramatis personae is Doctor Sorn (Richard Greenblatt) – Emma's brother, Con's uncle and a kindly, but removed observer of the overemotional bunch around him.

If you know The Seagull, you'll notice a few characters missing. But as Con says early on, while complaining about the state of the theatre today, "Do you know that six people is now a big play? A play such as this one with seven actors is practically unproducible – if we weren't a … whatever … a a a deconstruction … a rip-off of a classic."

That speech is an example of the most substantive difference between this play and The Seagull – not curse words or indie-rock ukulele, but the fact that the characters in Posner's play know that they are in a play, even as they remain invested in the fictional circumstances of it.

The style makes for a lively show. As Con, Maslany is particularly adept at interacting with the audience; he got the biggest laughs on opening night mocking a ribald spectator's suggestion of how he could woo back Nina. (And yes, since we've got metatheatrical here, the Regina-born actor is the brother of Tatiana Maslany, the Emmy-winning star of Orphan Black.)

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That the playwright needs to give explicit permission to performers for them to act in this way is what makes this a very North American adaptation. Acknowledging that theatre is, in fact, live is actually fairly standard practice in, say, "original practice" productions of Shakespeare, or in European (and European-inspired) productions of any classic play.

Some of the actors are less comfortable with the lack of a fourth wall than Maslany, but over all performances are strong. I liked Craig Lauzon's Trigorin most of all, because it was entirely free of pretense – and really made me see the character anew. He doesn't overplay the author's charisma, instead seeming like a guy still a little baffled by how his fame warps how others see him. Lauzon has the realest presence on stage – and his scenes with Knox's magnetic Nina are golden.

What Posner's adaptation, which has been done all over the United States, eventually bumps up against in Ontario is a rather sterling record of Chekhov in production in these parts. Soulpepper established itself by working through his major plays (though, oddly enough, not The Seagull), while nearby destination theatre options in the Stratford Festival and Shaw Festival have both distinguished themselves with Chekhov in recent memory. Two of the our top directors – Chris Abraham and Peter Hinton – have tackled The Seagull in the past few years.

Posner's adaptation seems intended for an audience that is more skeptical of Chekhov and doesn't normally relate to his passive-aggressive, cold-climate characters the way many Canadians do.

If you fall into that category, you might really love Posner's play. I, however, found it tried a little too hard to say: See, Chekhov can be fun! Posner doesn't trust Chekhov enough to fully channel what makes his plays great – nor does he go far enough in charting his own course like Christopher Durang did with his 2013 Tony-winning mash-up Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

This particularly becomes a problem in the final act – where Maslany and Knox must muddle their way through updated dialogue layered over antiquated melodrama. Posner liberates, in a way, Con from his fate, but keeps Nina stuck in a dated stereotype – and neither the actress nor director Stromberg step in to deconstruct it.

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In the end, SFB doesn't have any moment as exquisitely and excruciatingly human as the ones that pervaded Jackie Maxwell's production of Uncle Vanya at Shaw Festival last year. That was in a translation by another American, Annie Baker, who has a clearer grasp on what actually makes Chekhov so great, what is luminous rather than simply gloomy in his naturalism, and what can be genuinely funny about people being sad.

Stupid Fucking Bird continues to March 19 (sfbird.com).

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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