Stupid Fucking Bird

by John Stoltenberg

Woolly Mammoth‘s jaunty staging of Aaron Posner‘s rejiggered Seagull is enormously entertaining. It’s like—

Well, at times the actors have scenes together that are kind of…borrowed…or lifted…or cribbed or whatever…from Chekhov’s original, and at other times they…I don’t know, they—

Actually what they do is they address the audience like they…well, you know…

So there’s these seven actors, see. And they each play a role in the basic story that Chekhov wrote. And there’s tons of love on stage. Yeah, that’s what Chekhov himself said in 1895 while he was writing The Seagull: “tons of love.” Except it’s all…what do you call it?…blown off…rebuffed…unrequited or whatever. And so the actors are all really fun to watch even when their characters are bummed and very sad. Just very very sad because…I don’t know they—

Know whud I mean?

My point here is that Posner has taken Chekhovian subtext—unspoken charged emotions below the surface of what characters say aloud (Chekhov’s signature dramatic technique that famously influenced theatrical history)—and traded it for unfinished thoughts and dangling utterances that litter his script with ellipses and em dashes at line endings. This textual stunt is tons of fun, especially when Posner has characters say the filler words whatever and fuck. The voices on stage sound contemporary, not nineteenth century at all. Posner captures precisely how people communicate in real life these days—in fumbling, incomplete fragments groping for expression and hoping for comprehension. That’s what’s expected and accepted. In fact in this era of inarticulation, there are certain social circles (for instance among the young) where someone who articulates clearly, who makes real sense in complete syntax, is regarded with suspicion and even derision.

Know whud I’m sayin’?

The only other time I’ve seen The Seagull on stage was in London. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s acclaimed production, directed by Trevor Nunn with Ian McKellan, was wrapping up its international tour. And that was the point in my life when I understood why theater folks revere Chekhov. The language on stage was so rich, the acting so emotionally resonant, the characters so hilarious in their melancholy, that I finally got it: I got why Chekhov deemed The Seagull a comedy. The human-all-too-human kind. The kind that keeps your eyeballs really moist.

The snippets of the Seagull story that Posner has plugged into his script are unsustained; the actors regularly break character, unsentimentally. The rollicking waves of humor come mainly from Posner’s clever colloquialisms and anachronisms and interactive bits with the audience. And it’s indeed a hilarious crowd pleaser, like watching actors improvise on the edge. But to the limited extent it’s Chekhov, it’s a Cliff’s Notes version for those more familiar with Chekov from Star Trek.

The effect is as discombobulating as it is entertaining. We are drawn into a scene fraught with emotion, then suddenly yanked out. Over and over, again and again, as if everything is in air quotes, bracketed in ironic detachment. So after a while, we learn we dare not care too much about the lives of the characters on stage. We literally learn not to trust our own empathy, because to do so is to be set up to be a little bit betrayed by another bait and switch.

Now, I know that Posner can write one hell of a full-fledged play. His adaptation of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen at Arena was utterly gorgeous. I was moved beyond words. Changed too, actually—I left that theater experience different from when I went in.

The earnest young wannabe writer in Posner’s riff on The Seagull declaims early on that there must be new forms of art, creations that change us. By the end the lovelorn lad (actually the out-of-character actor who plays him) is searching aloud for the catharsis. Where’s the catharsis? he laments. Where is it?

It’s a very funny joke. But it also exposes Posner’s own grasping for authentic emotional content inside his trickster technique. Which can sometimes feel, you know, like he’s run out of ideas…or at a loss for meaning…or drawing a blank…or whatever.

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