Printed in the San Diego Jewish Journal May 2016
RUN DATES: 5/19/16 – 6/19/16
VENUE: Cygnet Theatre
When someone asks the precocious four-year-old daughter of playwright Aaron Posner the name of her father’s play, she shouts, “Stupid Fucking Bird!” (She knows to say it only at home).
Posner’s very personal response to Chekhov’s “The Seagull” has a very considered title. “I figure that anyone who’s offended by the title won’t come see the show,” he says.
Probably a good idea, since the F-bombs fall like bird droppings throughout the play, which also has sexual content and a bit of nudity. So stay away if you’re faint of heart.
But if you’re an adventurous theatergoer, you should definitely come, whether you’re familiar with Chekhov or not. The play is hilarious and thought-provoking, inspired and inspiring.
“This is a very personal play for me,” Posner says. “I’m talking, ad nauseum perhaps, about everything I’ve been thinking about for the 30 years of my life I’ve spent in professional theater. I’m looking at what’s flawed, what’s broken, where the hope and problems lie.
“That’s a very Jewish tradition, isn’t it? The things I care most about I’m critical of! Be rigorous with them; demand that they be good… and even better. That’s a Jewish sensibility!”
Posner insists that he “didn’t think too much” when he was writing SFB. It just came pouring out. “I was just responding,” he asserts, “to a play I love and hate.”
The Original Bird… and Why Posner Loves and Hates It
“The Seagull” was the first of the four major plays written by Anton Chekhov (Posner is working on his versions of the others, too: “The Three Sisters,” which he’s calling “No Sisters”; “Uncle Vanya,” which he’s named “Life Sucks (Or the Present Ridiculous)” and still to come, as yet untitled by Posner, “The Cherry Orchard”).
“The Seagull” dramatizes the romantic and artistic conflicts among four characters: the muse and budding actress, Nine; the famous story writer Boris Trigorin; the once-famous but fading actress Irina Arkadina; and her son, the avant garde playwright, Konstantin Treplev.
Posner’s Americanized version names them Nina, Trig, Emma and Con. The black-clad Masha, ever “in mourning for [her] life,” becomes Mash. As Posner’s laugh-out-loud stage directions describe her name, it’s “pronounced MOSH, like the pit, not like what you do to potatoes.” And Con’s play-within-the-play is named… what else? … “Stupid Fucking Bird.”
To sum up the convoluted relationships, Emma loves Trig (though she loves herself more); Con loves Nina, Nina loves Trig, Mash loves Con, and Con’s best friend, Dev loves Mash. As the world-weary, aging doctor, Sorn (a conflation of Chekhov’s Sorin and Dorn), puts it, “So much feeling!… Do you all feel all the feelings you say you feel?”
When Chekhov’s play premiered in 1896, it was a disaster, and he vowed to stop writing plays for good. But after the reins were taken up by acclaimed Moscow Art Theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski two years later, “The Seagull” became an unequivocal success, and has remained so ever since.
“I love the play because it’s a spectacular work that asks all the Biggest Questions: about art, love, family and life,” says Posner. “It’s a seminal, radical piece of dramatic literature.
“But, what was once radical has since been imitated by virtually every dramatist in the last hundred years. Any ongoing TV or film story of people’s lives, including even soap operas, owes its form to Chekhov. His work was radical — the beginning of realism. But it’s become cliché and mundane. My impulse is to re-radicalize it, to re-imagine it for our own time.”
Posner says that it’s “absolutely not necessary” to be familiar with “The Seagull” to appreciate SFB, but knowing the source material can heighten the experience. What Posner has done has been called a reboot, a revamp, a remix, an update, a deconstruction, a reconstruction. None of these is a precise fit for him.
“There isn’t a name yet for exactly what this is,” says the affable playwright. “It’s certainly not a parody or a satire. It’s sort of an adaptation, sort of a re-imagination. This play couldn’t exist without Chekhov, but there’s not a word of his in it. It would be disingenuous to say it’s just ‘a new play.’ In the most pretentious description, I could say I’m doing exactly what Shakespeare did. He took other stories and plays and wrote new plays largely based on them. So, I’m actually stealing from Shakespeare!
“That puts me in really good company. I’ve got a genius on either arm — Chekhov on one side, Shakespeare on the other — and in the middle is me, doing the best I can, trying to tell the truth of what I think and feel. There are elements of me in every character in the play.”
Would Chekhov, the groundbreaker, like what Posner has done?
“I think he would,” asserts Posner. “I’m writing about the same things he was writing about. I find the world absurd as he did. I didn’t set out to write a comedy, any more than he did. And I admit, when I first saw my play performed, it was funnier than I thought.”
For over a century, there’s been heated debate about whether Chekhov’s plays are comedies, as he insisted they were, or dour, oppressive dramas, as most theaters reverentially present them. But that’s another story for another day.
Posner… Past and Present
Speaking of reverential adaptations, however, that’s exactly what made Posner’s name, before SFB premiered in 2013, snagging a bunch of awards and becoming one of the ten most produced plays in the country this year.
North Coast Repertory Theatre has presented three of his most popular literary adaptations: “The Chosen” and “My Name is Asher Lev” (from the acclaimed Jewish-themed novels by Chaim Potok) and “Who Am I This Time?,” based on stories by Kurt Vonnegut. He’s also dramatized works by Ken Kesey and Mark Twain.
But everything is different now, as he bites voraciously into Chekhov’s masterworks. One captivating aspect of SFB is its meta-theatrics. All his characters know they’re in a play, on a stage, with people watching. Con actually asks the audience for relationship advice.
For those who know Chekhov’s play, it’s fascinating to see Posner’s characters following the basic storyline of “The Seagull,” but saying everything no Chekhov character would ever dare to say.
“They speak the subtext,” Posner explains. “What people are thinking but typically don’t say.”
At one point, Con, the play’s playwright-in-residence, describes his latest creation (SFB) as “full of people just angsting and whining and going on and on endlessly.” Ironic, because some have said those very words about Chekhov’s dramas, and the characters in Posner’s play are doing the same thing.
“That’s very Jewish,” quips Posner. “Whining and complaining.” In fact, Posner notes that his re-imagination of “Uncle Vanya,” “Life Sucks,” is “in some ways a kind of Jewish play. The characters feel Jewish. Some are overtly Jewish.”
“Life Sucks” premiered in January 2015 at Theatre J, a Jewish theater company in Washington D.C. As the Washington Post put it, “Posner gives huge and equal bearhugs to Chekhov’s absurd comedy and touching pathos while leaving room to banter with the audience.”
This is, of course, also true of SFB, which the L.A. Weekly called “the best Chekhov adaptation in two decades… authentic, self-aware, playful, pathos-filled, unassuming and world-wise.” The Los Angeles Times praised its “galloping adventurousness and an often bracing contemporary wit.”
When the play opened at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in D.C., the Washington Post called it “a ripe mashup of mock and awe” that “mines ‘The Seagull’ for classical heft even while giving it the bird.”
In their contemplation of Love and Art, both Chekhov’s Konstantin and Posner’s Con lament the state of theater.
“We need new forms, new passion, new ideas!,” cries Con. “Do you have any idea what’s passing itself off as theater these days? We need something REAL. Or WTF’s the point?”
Posner is giving us something real – his real feelings, his genuine concerns – about theater, life, politicians and other weighty subjects. The play talks about love as a matter of compromise. Not so for Art.
“‘Asher Lev’ was all about the absolute need not to compromise in art,” says Posner. “That’s why I kept my title, though when I did, I never thought the play would get done. But my choice not to compromise resulted in my most successful play ever, with some 25 productions this year.”
After several years and so many productions, Posner no longer travels to see most of his works onstage. But he will attend the San Diego production at Cygnet Theatre.
The Playwright-Director Connection
That’s because Posner knows and respects the director, Cygnet Theatre’s associate artistic director Rob Lutfy, who once had a fellowship at the Kennedy Center in D.C., near where Posner lives. Lutfy was assistant director to Posner at Washington’s Folger Theatre four years ago.
“We became friends,” says Posner, who is equally active as a director and a writer. He directs seven productions a year (he was the founder and former artistic director of the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia). And he knows quality when he sees it. “Rob is very, very smart and capable,” Posner says.
“He became a mentor to me,” says Lutfy, who recently did a spectacular job directing an extremely challenging play, Andrew Bovell’s “When the Rain Stops Falling” at Cygnet Theatre.
Lutfy is thrilled to be directing Posner’s play, and he’s very excited about his multi-cultural cast: Con is played by Ro Boddie, who was excellent as Martin Luther King last year in “Blueprints to Freedom” at the La Jolla Playhouse. As Con’s mother, Emma, beloved former-local, Karole Foreman, returns to her hometown. Nina is portrayed by Rachel Tate, who happens to be Lutfy’s partner, served as a nanny for the Posner family and also played Nina under Posner’s direction of another Chekhov spinoff, Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at the Arena Stage in Washington.
The cast is rounded out by treasured local actors Francis Gercke (Trig), Jacque Wilke (Mash), Walter Murray (Sorn) and Brian Rickel (Dev). Lutfy is well aware that making the central family African American will add new and intriguing layers to the play.
“A lot of audience members think of Chekhov as melodrama,” says Lutfy. “Or, they think his work is impenetrable because it’s a hundred years old. Aaron takes the dust off it, so we feel like we know these people, or feel just like they do. This play is so fresh. It helps that I’ve worked with Aaron and I’ve seen his work for years. I know him so well that I know how much of him is in this play!”
Amid all the kvetching in SFB, the playwright, Con, even laments his recent spate of success: “It just feels like a setup for a new kind of failure.
Is that the way Posner, the Nice Jewish Boy born in Wisconsin and raised in Oregon, experiences it? No way
“I feel great about the success,” he says. “I’m enjoying every bit of it.” Now, how Jewish is that?