Thwarted romance, angst animate Sideshow's brilliant 'Bird'
"Stupid (expletive) Bird" is an exceptional play, but this commercial remount of Sideshow Theatre Company's 2014 hit is not for everyone. That's especially true of those sensitive to profanity, which playwright Aaron Posner ("The Chosen," "My Name is Asher Lev") uses liberally and purposefully in his "sort-of adaptation" of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull."
Theatergoers who can abide the F-bombs, however, will be rewarded with a smart, funny, irreverent and moving deconstruction of Chekhov's 19th century play about the desperate, futile search for love and a certain love-struck young writer (beautifully played by Nate Whelden) determined to create art that matters.
Grand and invigorating, Posner's metatheatrical dramedy borders on the operatic, evidenced by impassioned addresses to the audience delivered by characters whose names echo their Chekhov counterparts. They all recognize they're in a play and say as much.
At one point, Whelden's Con proclaims the world needs new kinds of theater -- something besides the "tiny, tepid, clever-y, clever-y, clever-y little plays that are being produced by terrified theatres just trying to keep ancient Jews and gay men and retired academics and a few random others who did plays in high school trickling in their doors."
It's the kind of sly jab only an insider could make. Yet Con's sincerity is never in doubt.
That's a tribute to Posner and the superb Sideshow ensemble. Every rant, every justification, every confession these characters make rings true. That authenticity -- the raw honesty underscoring director Jonathan L. Green's compassionate, intelligent production -- is among the great pleasures of "Bird," whose love-addicted characters have the misfortune of falling for the wrong people.
Aspiring playwright Con (Whelden, in a bracing, intensely felt performance) wants desperately to create a new type of theater, something transformational and more meaningful than the popular entertainment his actress mother performs. Yet he finds himself tied inexplicably to the old forms.
Even greater than his desire to create is his desire for Nina, his winsome neighbor, played by the willowy Nina O'Keefe, of Downers Grove. O'Keefe's earnest, balanced performance reflects both the character's guilelessness and her powers of seduction. Better still is her compelling, utterly convincing transformation into a woman humbled but determined to persevere.
Their romance sours, however, when Nina becomes infatuated with best-selling author Trig (an amenable Cody Proctor, spot-on as a man easily led). He's the slightly younger boyfriend of Con's mother, the self-absorbed Emma (a fiery, formidable Stacy Stoltz), a famous actress and failed parent who returns home to visit her son and brother Sorn (a sweetly sympathetic Norm Woodel), an aging country doctor lamenting his lost youth.
Orbiting around the family is the ukulele-playing Mash (the terrific Katy Carolina Collins, whose disdain masks real vulnerability). The family cook and troubadour, Mash is the primary source of music in the play, which pairs James Sugg's pleasantly quirky originals with covers, including Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love," which, with its "uh oh" refrain, says everything about these characters' misplaced affections.
Mash is hopelessly in love with Con, to the everlasting dismay of his pal Dev, played with an easygoing, everyman charm by Matt Fletcher. The least artistic but most perceptive and pragmatic member of the group, Dev loves Mash, whose contempt never dampens his affection.
Bedeviled by "stupid dreams of perfect love," Posner's characters express their all-consuming desires -- for love, fame, attention, respect, kindness, a hug, a bottomless bowl of ice cream -- in the somewhat contrived yet effective conclusion to Act 1.
For these restless, discontented souls, life and love is "all too much and never enough" as Mash explains in one of Sugg's tunes.
That refrain echoes throughout "Bird," just as it does in the 19th century classic that inspired it. Love is not just imperfect, but unattainable. Yet we pursue it relentlessly, hopeful one day it will be ours.
"Stupid (expletive) Bird"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, (773) 871-3000 or victorygardens.org or sideshowtheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; through Aug. 30.
Running time: About two hours, 25 minutes with intermission
Parking: Metered parking; $13 valet; some free parking available at the former Children's Memorial Hospital parking garage at 2316 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago
Rating: For adults; includes mature subject matter and strong language