In one way or another, Anton Chekhov has become the man of the moment on Chicago stages — even if his plays don’t always arrive in their “original” form.
The Russian playwright’s major works (“The Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya,” “Three Sisters,” “The Cherry Orchard”) laid the foundation for modern, naturalistic theater in the earliest years of the 20th century, with productions of them remaining essential elements in the rep of theaters both large and small. But here’s the rub: Traditional productions don’t always make a visceral connection with contemporary audiences, while “hip” adaptations seem to have far greater appeal.
Consider the broad (if at moments inspired) satire on American midlife crises in Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which just completed its run at the Goodman Theatre. Now take a look at Aaron Posner’s “Stupid F—ing Bird,” in a Sideshow Theatre production remounted at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre.
“Bird,” which has become a genuine hit for Sideshow, is true to Chekhov by being thoroughly “modern” in its own way — with an intensely self-aware, punch-through-the-fourth-wall, alienation-and-expletive-infused dramedy style clearly targeted at the millennial generation. It is Chekhov made “relevant” in the most literal terms. But in a crazy way it works.
‘STUPID F—ING BIRD’
When: Through Aug. 30
Where: Sideshow Theatre at
Victory Gardens Biography Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $15 – $49
Info: (773) 871-3000; www.victorygardens.org
Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
It is easy to understand the appeal of Posner’s “Bird,” which as a program note puts it is “sort-of-adapted from ‘The Seagull,’ ” although you could add “without outtakes from the other plays.” It takes Chekhov’s familiar characters — mostly middle class, overeducated, artistically driven late 19th century Russians — and relocates them to what might be modern-day Seattle. And their problems, as it turns out, are not so different from those that plagued their Russian predecessors.
Drawing us into the story is Mash (Katy Carolina Collins is blackly comic perfection), a wildly unhappy post-punk twentysomething who strums self-composed songs of unrequited love and alienation on her ukelele (forgot those Russian balalaikas). She is pining for Con (the ideally sensitive Nate Wheldon), the aspiring experimental playwright who rejects the commercial, middlebrow success of his egocentric, unhappily middle-aged actress mother, Emma (Stacy Stoltz, who, in her big scenes, erupts with fearless volcanic force). But Con has a mad crush on Nina (Nina O’Keefe, who taps both the intelligence and knowing sensuality in her character), the local girl and aspiring actress who has become his muse, and who performs his “play” on an outdoor stage set up on his family’s lakefront property.
As it happens, Emma has come for a visit with her younger lover, Trig (the understated Cody Proctor), a successful writer both narcissistic and self-doubting.
Observing all the madness in their different ways are men of two different generations. Dev (Matt Fletcher in a performance that dances expertly between the goofy and the profound) is an ordinary, somewhat nerdy guy who is far more perceptive than he is given credit for, and who wants desperately to settle down with Mash. Sorn (Norm Woodel, an actor of impeccable timing) is Emma’s older brother, a sixtysomething doctor who confesses that despite his success he has missed out on many things in life. All the actors, under the fleet, droll direction of Jonathan L. Green, are ideally cast.
In short, “Bird” is a perfect picture of millennial alienation and boomer era discontent. It also is funnier and more subtly edgy in its way than Durang’s play.
Will anyone remember any of this anguish and egotism in 100 years? Posner, like Chekhov, asks that question. And it rings as true as ever.
One final note: Posner, along with Teller (of the magic duo Penn and Teller), will co-direct the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of “The Tempest” this fall. Intriguing.