Stupid F**king Bird

New Athenaeum Theatre, 24 The Octagon, Dunedin

24/08/2023 - 26/08/2023

Production Details

Playwright: Aaron Posner
Director: Ryan Hartigan


Kia ora e hoa, come and witness dollhouse’s next production, the Aotearoa premiere of the award-winning ‘Stupid F**king Bird’ (SFB) by Aaron Posner! A contemporary adaptation of and response to Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’, SFB is about love and life – the agony of it all. It’s funny, heartbreaking, and special.

Posner’s widely critically acclaimed work was originally produced by legendary theatre group Woolly Mammoth Theatre Co. in Washington DC in May 2013, where it won the Helen Hayes award for best new play. Subsequently produced all over the US to rave reviews and sold out houses, the Bird now lands here!

‘There are many ways in which it is possible for theater to be good. Stupid F**king Bird is good in an obscenely large number of them.’

Entertainment Central, Pittsburgh

‘Throughout, Chekhov’s mournful themes arrive intact: unrequited love, the uncanny feeling that we’re spectators to our own lives, and the discomfiting awareness that art will always have the shapely structure that ordinary life lacks—and that we yearn for. We’re reminded that a well-lived life is the most artful fiction of them all.’

– The New Yorker

How much Chekhov is used and recycled by writers and theatre companies? Only marginally less than Shakespeare would be my guess until one mutters under one’s breath “not another stupid f’*íng Chekhov”. Then Aaron Posner gives us Stupid F**king Bird and we are glad glad glad a writer has the skill and understanding to take a classic text and reimagine it for a 21st century audience. 

It deserves a standing ovation. It won’t get one. You will have to see it to work out why. And see it you must. It is stupidly f**king fabulous.’

– Theatre Now (Sydney)

Tickets from Humanitix
GA: $20
Conc: $15
Try-Your-Luck: $5 + throw three six-sided dice on the door and pay the sum

[Originally scheduled to run from 18 August, the season was shortened due to unforeseen circumstances.]

Con: Daniel McClymont
Nina: Ciara Mare
Emma: Mārama Grant
Sorn: Cheyne Jenkinson
Trig: Rio Futschek Ryan
Dev: Tia Hibbert
Mash: Reva Grills

Director: Ryan Hartigan
Creative Producer: Sahara Pohatu-Trow
Lighting Designer / Operator: Ash Dawes
Stage Manager: Olivia Temm

Theatre ,

2 hours

Mainly youthful performers clearly relish the challenges

Review by Alister McDonald 27th Aug 2023

Aaron Posner lectures on the Performing Arts at the American University in Washington DC. With 150 productions, he is also a very experienced director in America’s regional professional theatres, for two of which he has also been Artistic Director. For most of his 40-year career he has written for the theatre, with 15 plays highlighted on his website, almost all deriving from other works of literature. Earlier in his career he wrote ‘reverent adaptations,’ one of which, My Name is Asher Lev, from Chaim Potok’s novel, ran for nine months off-Broadway, his most successful New York outing to date.

Stupid Fucking Bird is an ‘irreverent adaptation,’ openly taking its inspiration from Chekhov’s The Seagull but contemporary in language, setting and style. In the decade since it premiered at the progressive Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington DC it has had 250 major productions, with at least six outside America. The current Dunedin production by dollhouse at the New Athenaeum Theatre is the play’s New Zealand premiere. Buoyed by his play’s success, Posner has subsequently written Life Sucks (from Uncle Vanya), No Sisters (from The Three Sisters) and Anton’s Shorts, from the vaudevilles. 

In writing his irreverent adaptations, Posner told American Theater (the journal of record for the not-for-profit sector of American theatre) “Serving the originating author no longer has any part of my consciousness. I am now borrowing the bones of previous works, stepping into the playground created by the other works and sharing things that are important to me.” He now finds Chekhov “too familiar and risk-free.” The plays “in their day […] were radical departures but what was once radical now [feels] safe and easily digestible.” In his quest to re-radicalise Chekhov he aims to “grapple with themes of love, family and theatre itself” found in the Russian works. Describing Chekhov as an ‘iceberg writer,’ Posner acknowledges “I take a lot of what’s below the surface and I hurl it up on the surface” (something for which fellow American dramatist Tennessee Williams was roundly criticized when he wrote The Notebooks of Trigorin, his late career adaptation of The Seagull).

Stupid Fucking Bird involves the household of the star actress Emma (Marama Grant). Her son Conrad (Daniel McClymont) is a depressed wannabe writer / director in love with Nina (Ciara Mare), the performer in an unsuccessful avant-garde, site-specific performance art work he has devised. Nina’s affections are directed to Trigorin (Rio Futschek Ryan), a successful writer and the current partner of Emma. Conrad is oblivious to the feelings of Mash (Reva Grills) who is pursued in turn by Dev (conceived as a male character, Chekhov’s Medvedenko, but here played by Tia Hibbert). Rounding out the cast as Sorn (a combination of Chekhov’s Sorin and Dorn) is Cheyne Jenkinson. In the play’s four-year time span Nina has an affair with Trigorin and Dev marries Mash. The triangular relationships among Chekhov’s characters, inevitably involving unrequited love, are recreated here. The missing characters from The Seagull are the servants. Clearly the class aspect of the Chekhovian world is of no interest to a writer in the famously class-less America (not). 

Two hours pass during the production, largely occupied by talk of love, literature, theatre, art, life, performance, authenticity, goodness and truth. One means by which the author makes Chekhov’s sub-text and thematic concerns explicit is by having them sung to us periodically. Reva Grills not only contributes a clearly characterized performance as Mash but also provides the ukelele accompaniment.  The conclusion avoids the (off-stage) melodrama of Chekhov’s play but sees Conrad on-stage with a gun, pondering whether to fire it or not, followed by a black-out. Chekhov’s naturalism is frequently eschewed in favour of the self-consciously theatrical, with the fourth wall being broken from the play’s first line and the audience encouraged on occasion to become active participants in proceedings.

The play’s title signals its apparently iconoclastic take on its source, and also alerts us to its linguistic register. In my experience there is a law of diminishing returns which applies to repeated obscenity in the theatre (or cinema), as anyone who has sat through a Steven Berkoff or post-1990 Howard Barker play will know. Both British dramatists do not hesitate to put potty mouths into characters previously unfamiliar with such words; indeed, Barker has done so with Chekhov in his, I suspect thematically more radical than Posner’s, (Uncle) Vanya re-write. But the humour, shock value, emphasis and dramatic value of the obscenity wear off as the performance proceeds. So it is here.

Directed by dollhouse Artistic Director Ryan Hartigan, the performance has the audience on three sides of the stage area. In the first act there is a Poor Theatre feel to proceedings with the only setting element rows of chairs for the performers. After the interval we are in a kitchen with a row of appliances along the back of the stage. I think the up-stage area is somewhat underlit by the limited number of lighting instruments in the New Athenaeum Theatre during the first act but the issue seems to have been addressed in the second. 

The production has been well-rehearsed and the mainly youthful performers clearly relish the challenges that the script throws at them (such as having to actively improvise with suggestions invited from the audience) and take on the varying performance modes all the self-absorbed characters require in the course of the evening. Reviews of some American productions speak of nudity but unless I was asleep (I wasn’t) it does not feature in this production.

Daniel McClymont, last seen in the city as one of the thugs in Saved, successfully conveys Conrad’s mental struggles stemming from his writing and his love. Tia Hibbert grows as a presence as the performance proceeds, and the relationship of her character Dev with Mash in the second act seems much less unhappy than that of their Chekhovian forebears.

The stage area at the New Athenaeum Theatre has an unhelpful acoustic, and this issue is particularly pronounced when performers turn their backs to the audience or drop into an intimate level of conversation. If mic-ing is not to be resorted to then performers in this space must work on their projection, remembering that breath and the sounding board of the auditorium back-wall are key in this endeavour, and that the paying patron in the back row is as entitled to hear what’s going on as the performers’ friends on comps in the front row.

For the last 30 years of its life, one of the distinctive contributions of the now-closed professional Fortune Theatre was to introduce to Dunedin audiences rising American dramatists, particularly from off-Broadway and resident regional companies. It is good to see dollhouse doing the same. The trick, however, is to match the American writer to the Dunedin audience. The potential problem in this instance is that, unlike American regional theatres where Chekhov has often been a staple, it is almost 20 years since there was last a production of The Seagull in the city. (I acknowledge that there was an NT Live screening of a recent stripped back West End version earlier in the year.)  It is more than 40 years since there was last a professional production of any of Chekhov’s works staged here. Stupid Fucking Bird clearly works on its own terms but, equally clearly, for a full appreciation of what the author is about needs an audience which is familiar with the source text. As a larger project for dollhouse it would have been interesting to see a revival of the Chekhov original alongside the new work, with the performers playing the equivalent roles in both plays.


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