Jeffrey Eric Jenkins/review | Adult comedy soars in Station's 'Bird'

Jeffrey Eric Jenkins/review | Adult comedy soars in Station's 'Bird'


In the dusty archives of a famed actors' club in St. Petersburg, Russia, a bust of the great dramatist Anton Chekhov peers down at mere mortals who sit at a table near the bookcase where he is perched. Why would this come to mind at Thursday night's opening of "Stupid _______ Bird" by Aaron Posner at the Station Theatre in Urbana?

In Jadon Peck's impressionistic scene design, which suggests a range of rustic locations near a lake glimpsed through painted panels at the rear of the tiny Station Theatre, a prominent photograph of Chekhov looms as an icon calling forth the work's Russian soul.

This play with The News-Gazette's mandated blank space is "sort of" based on the Russian master's classic "The Seagull." The missing word is a vulgar adjective frequently employed throughout the play.

The characters are not, however, 19th-century denizens of a Russian dacha. These refugees (spinoffs?) from Chekhov speak the argot of today's version of bohemian culture. Adapting the piece for seven principal characters instead of the usual dozen or so, playwright Posner nimbly deploys Chekhovian themes on the significance of love and art in human experience to create a trio of couples who are by turns star-matched and star-crossed.

Conrad (Jake Fava) overflows with artistic and romantic desire in his quest for "new forms" of theatrical expression as he seeks to impress his vain, dismissive mother, Emma (Joi Hoffsommer), and his prospective paramour, Nina (Lindsey Gates-Markel). It is a lot of pressure for an intense young man whose sap is rising and who feels overshadowed by his actor mother and her lover, Trigorin (Gary Ambler), a famed literary figure.

As counterpoint to these couples, Posner offers two young people from the less-privileged classes, Dev (Eric Beckley) and Mash (Hannah Yonan). Mash pines for the young writer, Con, who barely acknowledges her existence. She wears black because, she says, "I'm in mourning. For my life. I'm unhappy."

For his part, Dev, whom another character describes as Con's "odd friend," carries the torch of unrequited love for Mash and good-naturedly argues with her over which of them is more miserable. When Mash wonders if they are characters in "a Dickens novel," we are reminded that this is not Chekhov, it's Posner, but as in Chekhov (and life), everyone's a little miserable.

Acting as a choric presence for the play is Sorn (William L. Kephart), an aging doctor who is Emma's brother and Con's supportive uncle. It is he who attempts to soothe troubled waters between his sister and nephew, who ruminates on the meaning of it all, and who unsettles the audience with his conclusions about human nature and purpose.

A key difference between Posner's "Bird" and Chekhov's "Seagull" comes in the current play's use of direct address to the audience. Chekhov is noted for his use of indirection, with key events often happening offstage so that audiences witness how characters react to the fact of these actions.

In Posner's comic view, however, indirection is overcome as characters break the "fourth wall," unburdening themselves of their cares and woes. They beg us to recognize them, to feel their pain, and ask us (literally) for advice. Something may be lost in this shifted paradigm, but much accessible adult humor is gained and Con's plaintive cry for new forms comes flickering to life.

Director Kay Bohannon Holley has cobbled a tight ensemble of actors, several of whom have worked together in the past. Fava's heated passion as the young artist sometimes feels as though it might overwhelm the intimacy of the theater space, but he wisely holds himself in reserve. Yonan's Mash is a revelation that makes us wonder why Con is blind to her many charms.

Beckley, as Dev, provides a needed and delightful balance to Mash and Con's intensity. As Nina, the heartbreaker who finds the making of art a crushing challenge, Gates-Markel floats through the play as if she were a butterfly who stings. She never lands for long, but she leaves pain in her wake. Like every true artist, she says, "I go on."

Stage veterans Hoffsommer and Ambler are well matched as a power couple among the literati in their world. Hoffsommer's Emma delivers a poignant speech on the satisfactions of winter romance that drives Trigorin back into her arms, for a while anyway. Kephart's Sorn provides many pleasures with warm, open connection to the other characters and to the audience.

There is much to admire in "Bird," but when the characters ask for advice, we want to say, "Stop wanting what is not yours."

Easier said than done. Don't you think?

Parental warning: The production has nudity and adult language and themes.

Jeffrey Eric Jenkins is a professor at the University of Illinois. His theater writing has appeared in many publications, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The New York Times.

Topics (1):Theater