Review: Stupid Fucking Bird at Maryland Ensemble Theatre

TheatreBloom rating:

Do you know what passes for theatre these days? Honestly? How many of you get out of your comfortable living rooms— with your live-streaming Broadway channels on Netflix or the “new musical of the month” live on NBC— and go to the theatre, sit through two to three hours of live performance, and actually take in what you’ve just seen? The Maryland Ensemble Theatre seems to know what’s passing for live theatre and has challenged the standard, raised the bar, and boldly taken on Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, a show which made its splashy debut not quite three years ago in Washington at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Directed by Gerard Stropnicky, the MET’s production marches Posner’s self-proclaimed “sort-of-adapted-from-Chekhov’s-The-Seagull” work to its own ensemble beat and reinforces the notion that theatre is alive and well and living in Frederick, however unconventionally.

Noah Sommer (left) as Dev, Jeff Keilholtz (center) as Con, and Tom Majarov (right) as Sorn in Stupid Fucking Bird at Maryland Ensemble TheatreMET
Noah Sommer (left) as Dev, Jeff Keilholtz (center) as Con, and Tom Majarov (right) as Sorn in Stupid Fucking Bird at Maryland Ensemble Theatre

Anyone who’s ever attended a production at the MET knows that they have a unique play space for their mainstage. This, for some, would be good cause to limit the types of productions performed, however Set Designer Doug Grove, working in tandem with Director Gerard Stropnicky, embrace the challenge of setting a meta-play with some disruptive fourth-wall explosions in said space and succeed in doing so in a realistic and intriguing fashion. Leaving a great deal of the scenic narrative to Projection and Sound Designer Jerry Matheny, the lake and it’s varying times of day are projected onto a drop-scrim, allowing for ease of transition. It’s Stropnicky and Grove’s approach to the spinning platform that hides the Act II fully-functional kitchen (complete with sink, fridge, and granite countertops) as well as the dockside rickety wooden “outdoor stage” that really make their creative genius felt in the context of the show.

Matheny, who serves as the show’s Sound Designer, brings aural resplendence to the production consistently throughout, and the only complaint there is to be made as that there should be more use of Callan Holderbaum’s original music (though the complaint is one in passing because hell if I could suggest a place to add more of it.) Matheny crafts a serenely delightful crepuscular soundscape with crickets and cicadas, or other chirping chatterers of the approaching eve and lets that resonate brilliantly in the segues of shifting times. Capturing the essence of informative emotion, Matheny includes a nostalgic meandering tune of light guitar strums that precede Sorn’s longer waxing monologues.

Jeff Keilholtz (left) as Con and Devin Gaither (right) as Nina in Stupid Fucking Bird at Maryaldn Ensemble TheatreMET
Jeff Keilholtz (left) as Con and Devin Gaither (right) as Nina in Stupid Fucking Bird at Maryaldn Ensemble Theatre

The hiccup with the production comes from the open-ended audience interactive that Posner has written into the script. As both he and Chekhov might inquire, “what the fuck is the point in having such a device if it isn’t being used to its fullest potential?” Director Gerard Stropnicky does allow these moments to breathe within the context of the piece, but they fall short of the engaging potential that could be found in them. These occur mostly with Con (played aptly by Jeff Keilholtz) and create little moments of disconnect between the audience and the players, when it’s meant to strengthen the bond of connective reality between the play being watched and the play that is happening. Stropnicky drops the pacing in a few places as well, but this— much like the audience interactive moments— are things that will settle into place as the show progresses throughout its run.

Keilholtz, who serves as the protagonistic and narrative Con, delivers the character with a funky spunk that situates Con on the edge of sanity throughout the performance, teetering to one side or the other of that blurry line drawn in the ether of this show. There is a thuggish quality, street grit without the strife, to Keilholtz’ portrayal of Con that makes the audience more carefully examine his experience in the play, in relation to the other characters in addition to the way he relates with the audience and with himself. Emotions find their depth at odd levels, but seemingly appropriate ones, with consistency in Keilholtz’ performance.

Caitlyn Joy (left) as Mash and Noah Sommer (right) as Dev in Stupid Fucking Bird at Maryland Ensemble TheatreMET
Caitlyn Joy (left) as Mash and Noah Sommer (right) as Dev in Stupid Fucking Bird at Maryland Ensemble Theatre

Posner didn’t set out to write a love-triangle with this work. He set out to write a vicious cyclical monster chase with many tentacles that form some imperfect shape that requires a map, diagram, and flow-chart to keep up with, or at least that’s what he ended up with when it comes to who’s in love with who. Mash (Caitlyn Joy) is the proverbial Eeyore of the production, wallowing in her own miserable miasma from start to finish. Joy takes up the ukulele a handful of times throughout the performance and brings a delicate and lyrically dissonant tune to the show, adding hints of humor to her otherwise moody performance. Pursued relentlessly by Dev (Noah Sommer), Joy’s character portrayal is aptly suited for the dreary circumstances of life in which she finds herself.

Sommer, who takes a sweet and nerdy approach to the rather simplistic and somewhat static character of Dev, is focused and well-grounded in his performance. Having a great many interactions with Con’s character and Mash’s, Sommer allows his character’s invisibility to pierce the reality of the dramatic happenings in the performance with a conscientious ease. Sommer also makes his asides to the audience have character, delivering them like stolen interactions as if he’s afraid to be caught speaking with us, a concept that reads with precious intent. Dev’s existence is palatable, much like that of Trigorin’s (Jack Evans), which is a character we’d much rather not tolerate.

Jack Evans (above) as Trigorin and Julie Herber (below) as Emma in Stupid Fucking Bird at Maryland Ensemble TheatreMET
Jack Evans (above) as Trigorin and Julie Herber (below) as Emma in Stupid Fucking Bird at Maryland Ensemble Theatre

Evans portrayal of Trigorin feels somewhat misguided and ultimately lacking in the arrogant department. This is a confusing juxtaposition as Evans’ physical stature and gait creates the air of celebrity that buzzes about him through the description of others, but his textual delivery lacks the confidential follow-through to complete the picture. This results in an unrewarding payoff for his character’s conclusion because the audience isn’t willing or able to hate him, despite all of the nasty characteristics that accompany the way the character itself is constructed. On the other hand, Evans’ humanization of Trigorin speaks to a much deeper vein of the Chekhovian experience and may not be entirely unintentional.

Tom Majarov, who according to his program bio has not performed at Woolly Mammoth, adapts the role of Sorn with a waxing nostalgic air, keeping his character’s ruminations very close to the surface of their existence. Majarov exists in the background of the play, but has the uncanny ability to pull focus when observing a scene in a non-intrusive and yet intriguing manner. The choice to have him mix up a perfectly disgusting cocktail— complete with a raw egg— but then never take a sip from it (or even mock a sip from it) seems entirely superfluous during one of his longer “this is my life in reflection” pontifications, but Majarov doesn’t allow the task at hand to detract from his overall delivery.

Devin Gaither as Nina in Stupid Fucking Bird at Maryland Ensemble TheatreMET
Devin Gaither as Nina in Stupid Fucking Bird at Maryland Ensemble Theatre

Nina (Devin Gaither) as well as Emma (Julie Herber) seem to quite possibly exist in a different play from the others, and at times, even from a different play from themselves. This is in fact the opposite of a bad thing because it creates this interconnectivity of the worlds that are happening on the stage. Posner’s world of Stupid Fucking Bird, wherein actors recognize— occasionally aloud to the audience— that they are in a play, the character’s world that they are actively taking part in, and a third instance of existence inside and outside of itself, an existential identity of meta-performance, if you will. Gaither’s performance as the youthful and exuberant Nina is a strange monster to grapple with as her portrayal exists in a neo-classical yet simultaneously retro-modern euphoria. There are hints of bubblegum-pop to her persona as well as a timeless air of a wandering woman; the juxtaposition of these two facets create an unusually striking character in Nina. This is most clearly expressed in her final monologue— a minute that is so scattered to the emotional winds that it arrives as a dizzying blur of words and expressions and leaves before it can be fully processed, creating in its wake a tragic beauty of epic proportions.

Julie Herber as Emma in Stupid Fucking Bird at Maryland Ensemble TheatreMET
Julie Herber as Emma in Stupid Fucking Bird at Maryland Ensemble Theatre

Herber is not unlike Gaither in this regard, as her character delivery of certain pieces of text feel jarringly out of place with the rest of the show, but in her case they add moments of levity or severity— depending upon the line— to the overall action or inaction as the case may be. Her haunting delivery of the great argument scene wherein she lays claim to love and emotion as well as dedication and devotion is as disturbing as it is powerful and certainly one for the books in regards to overall shocking moments in the performance. Finding the balance that exists within Emma is a challenging task, which Herber takes in hand and greets like an old friend, particularly when it comes to exposing the many faces of the character’s inner demons.

Words can only do the performance so much; you can’t really understand it unless you’re really there. Where are you? Are you there? If you’re smart, you’ll be there. You should go and see what they’re doing with the work, the way they’re pushing the boundary of how theatre acts as an animal, how audiences interact with this beast, and determine for yourself if Posner might be right in thinking that we should take stock of what we already have in regards to performing arts. This new work is shaking up the way we define theatre and Maryland Ensemble Theatre is proud to be a part of that disruption.

Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission and one semi-not-really intermission

Stupid Fucking Bird plays through March 6, 2016 on the Main Stage of the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in the Historic FSK Hotel building— 31 W. Patrick street in downtown historic Frederick, MD. For tickets call the box office at (301) 694-4744 or purchase them online.


Advertisment ad adsense adlogger
Close