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“Stupid F***ing Bird” might just leave you speechless

During the first act of “Stupid F***ing Bird”, struggling playwright Conrad (Doogin Brown) laments the current state of theater. He can’t believe what passes for good plays these days. What the industry needs, he says, is something new. Something innovative. Something real.

“You mean like this?” asks Dev (Duncan McIntyre), his perpetually optimistic wingman.

“This play we’re in?” says Conrad, shifting his gaze to the audience. “F*** no. Something better than this.”

It’s a funny, self-referential moment that gives the audience a much-needed reprieve from Conrad’s angsty musings. The play contains many of these moments. Characters break the fourth wall, asking audience members for advice and evaluating the play they are a part of as it unfolds.

These instances break up what might otherwise be a gruelingly intense—albeit therapeutic—experience. Throughout the play’s three acts, the cast portrays a palpable emotional distress. Aided by Aaron Posner’s compelling writing, this Unicorn Theatre-UMKC coproduction features excellent acting.

Robert Brand as Eugene and Katie Gilchrist as Emma. (Cynthia Levin)

The play is billed as an “edgy reboot” of Chekhov’s 1896 classic, “The Seagull”. Ever since its disastrous premiere and subsequent restaging by esteemed director Konstantin Stanislavsky (a triumphant theatrical event that altered the world of theatre forever), the play has captivated and confused audiences around the world.

The story centers on a group of artists, friends and family members who entangle themselves in a complex love triangle.

Conrad, the writer who is unimpressed by the very play he inhabits, loves aspiring actor Nina (UMKC’s Amy Billroth-MacLurg). Conrad’s mother, Emma (Katie Gilchrist), herself an aging actor, loves renowned writer Doyle (Brian Paulette). Problems ensue when mom’s boyfriend lays eyes on Nina.

Meanwhile, Mosh (UMKC’s Heather Michelle Lawler) loves Conrad, while Dev (UMKC’s Duncan McIntyre) loves Mosh. Also in the mix is Emma’s brother, Eugene (Robert Gibby Brand), who spends much of his time staring slack-jawed at the relationship dynamics spiraling around him.

Billroth-MacLurg steals the first act with her hilarious performance of Conrad’s “site specific performance event.” She dances around the stage reciting poetry and repeatedly asking, “Where are we?” Her physical humor helps sell the scene as a jab at lofty performance art. Billroth-MacLurg’s performance builds momentum as she falls for Doyle, destroying Conrad’s mental and emotional stability along the way.

Katie Gilchrist delivers a captivating performance as Emma. She embraces her character’s flaws. Her exchanges with Conrad, a son she admittedly “doesn’t hate, but is bothered by,” stand out from the rest. Unlike much of the play, which relies on emotional outbursts and wandering existential monologues, the strength of Gilchrist’s and Brown’s performance as mother and son rests in its subtleties. When they find themselves alone in the kitchen after a roller coaster of an evening, both actors give voice to all that is left unsaid. It is a bleak exchange that manages to illicit sympathy without shying away from each character’s inadequacy.

The play shines most when it breaks from the traditional, linear narrative. Lovers salsa dance around the stage, expressing changing relationships not through dialogue, but movement alone. Later in the show, they stare into the audience and deliver rapid-fire confessions, divulging their secrets and grappling with love’s cruelties.

As Mosh, Heather Michelle Lawler spends much of her time moping around and lashing out at other characters. Her prized possession is a ukulele, and she occasionally launches into songs about life’s futility. Lawler imbues these songs with enough humor to lighten the mood, without detracting from her character’s obvious pain.

As Dev, Duncan McIntyre is arguably the show’s most sympathetic character. He’s at his best when he’s playing the light-hearted, optimistic pal to Conrad’s brooding, tortured soul. He’s good at being cheerful, but less successful at displaying Dev’s complexities when the script calls for more emotional, deeper revelations.

Brown deserves recognition for his work in the final act, when Conrad’s existential dread and emotional havoc reach a boiling point. The manic energy he displays is captivating. Billroth-MacLurg tries her best to keep up, but the sheer force of Brown’s performance eclipses anything else happening onstage. His third-act monologue—equal parts teary-eyed desperation, rage, and humiliation—is one of the most memorable performances I’ve seen, and will likely haunt the audience long after the lights fade.

Maintaining a sense of Chekhovian authenticity while freeing itself from restrictive realism, “Stupid Fucking Bird” delivers all the gut-punching emotionality and existential angst characteristic of the gloomy Russian work in a way that is accessible to contemporary theatergoers.

Like all successful adaptations, it doesn’t rely on a preexisting knowledge of Chekov or his canonical writing, although audiences familiar with the source material will surely appreciate subtle allusions to and reversals of Chekov’s work.

“Stupid Fucking Bird” runs at the Unicorn Theater from November 29-December 23. For tickets and more information, check out unicorntheatre. org or call the box office at 816-531-7529.

sd6w8@mail.umkc.edu

Photos by Cynthia Levin

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