TAMPA — Creative risks can be painful, but with enough moxie and the right direction, you can change the way people read and watch drama.
Take Anton Chekhov, Russia's most famous playwright. In 1896, he attended the premiere of his seminal play The Seagull in St. Petersburg, Russia, and scurried backstage. The audience took to the dialogue-driven drama like a sugared-up crowd at the AMC when the projector busts. The play bombed.
Two years later, Chekhov renounced playwriting for good. But the abandoned Seagull took flight under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavski, the granddaddy of overcharging acting coaches. Anton's Seagull would go on to be called the first major drama of the 20th century.
Now, here we are, more than a century later with Aaron Posner's "sort-of adaptation," Stupid F--king Bird. His self-described perversion and subversion ups the ante by inviting us to examine our expectations of a theatrical experience.
Posner breaks Chekhov's characters out of the story. He smashes the fourth wall by inviting them to chat with the audience, and gets even more meta by playing on Chekhov's critique of artists mid-creating art, stopping to point out production shifts and tricks mid-show.
In doing so, Tampa Rep's first act is tight and resonant with hilarious asides. From the start of Act 1, the actors' entrance bucks tradition. We'll leave it at that. Conrad ribs the audience for their stereotypical makeup of "ancient Jews and gay men and retired academics and a few random others who did plays in high school trickling in their doors." One actor even cajoles us with local humor, ridiculing us for trying to figure out which players we've seen at American Stage, the bigger-budget house across the bay.
True to Chekhov, the story acquaints us with conflicted couples, his titular flitting bird of an actress, a disgruntled playwright and toxic mother-son relationship. In a smart move, Posner abbreviates the four-act drama to two and simplifies the names. His updated dialogue with familiar slang captures the behavior of a reality show, that is, if it were 50 IQ points higher.
The material is an actor's dream — the abject fury of Conrad (played passionately by Nick Hoop), the undeniable sparkle of budding performer Nina (Giselle Muise), the John Cusack-reminiscent idiot savant of Dev (made endearing by Ryan Bernier), the working-class foil of Mash (India Davison, who blesses the show with some fantastic singing).
On the more world-weary end, Emma and Doyle (Emilia Sargent and Adam Workman) dominate with charisma and do more damage than they realize, and the good doctor Eugene Sorn (played masterfully by Jim Wicker) keeps things in check with respites of Zen and sanity.
In one unintentionally prescient moment of art imitating life, Conrad stomps off and renounces his career. Sorn reacts positively to the young writer's experimentation, as do a couple others, to his surprise.
The actors crisscross the University of South Florida's Studio 120 space, rearranging lightwood chairs and tables in a number of configurations as the audience watches in tiered seats on three sides of the stage.
Jayce Bertucelli's lighting, Lea Umberger's staging and costumes are simple but elegant — a seagull is projected on an ivory scrim, and the cast wears unobtrusive, contemporary clothes, save for Dev, who dons a goofy getup with highwater jeans.
One of the production's biggest pluses is the original music by Igor Santos and James Sugg and sound (something we can always count on from Tampa Rep).
But something was off. There seemed to be a spark missing. After reading Posner's script, it was clear that some alternate staging and directorial choices might be preventing Tampa Rep's production from reaching its maximum, Stanislavskian thrust.
Here's one problem: We navigate Posner's homage-meets-lampoon of Chekhov but are situated outside it. The seats, according to Posner's stage notes, should border the set and provide full immersion. The playwright intends the actors to invade our personal space, which probably makes up for his stylistic interruptions in dramatic momentum.
Because we're positioned away from the psychodrama, we get an outside-the-birdcage view. Chekhov's brilliant melange of artistic ego and conflicted desires, Posner's asides and the actors' fluid movement and poignant confessions would have more impact in the thick of it.
The actors in Tampa Rep's cast do their best to follow Posner's directive to keep up the intensity and avoid coming across as too navel-gazing. But there are scenes, especially in Act 2, where they could pick up the pace and cut down on pauses. The actors have the chops to deliver the goods with more passion and energy.
Hopefully with "intimacy director" Dan Granke and vets C. David Frankel and Connie LaMarca Frankel helming the performances, the dead spots will be tightened by the next weekend run.
Still, Tampa Rep's production is a refreshing, professionally performed change of pace. Posner's Bird is an exercise in artistic game of theatrical Twister that's compelling to watch and utterly fascinating.
If you love Chekhov, Stupid F--king Bird will provide an amusing, thought-provoking experience. If you're a newbie, expect to be entertained by its surprises and eccentricities, if not completely blown away.
If you go
Stupid F--king Bird
$25, $20 for students, military and seniors. Runs through June 16. USF Studio 120, 3837 USF Holly Drive, Tampa. (813) 783-5465. For showtimes, visit tamparep.org.