On Easter Sunday I spent my evening by seeing the Station Theatre’s current production, Stupid F*#cking Bird. I reflected on the experience with a fellow audience goer and colleague after the show; it just felt natural for us to be in a theatre on a religious holiday. For me and so many others, the theatre is our church; or “sacred vessel for art” as mentioned Stupid F*#cking Bird. But rather than holy water and bibles, this church happened to be filled with expletives and dead seagulls.
The Station Theatre was welcoming to it’s humble, but energetic crowd. Before the show, the performers roamed free to grab coffee or chat with each other on the stage. Director Kay Holley was in attendance, and she went up to converse with the actors and even sang in a three-part harmony with actors Hannah Yonan and Jake Fava who provided sweet pre-show sounds on the ukulele and guitar. The musical theme continued throughout the show with both live performance and exhilarating song and sounds compiled by sound designer Dave Butler.
The overall look of the stage helped create a relaxed atmosphere. It was lit with care by lighting designer Jesse Folks and included bulb string lights hung before a lovely, scenic background by Laura Anne Welle. Jadon Peck’s aesthetically pleasing and functional set design included a wooden deck connected to a small “outdoor” stage which was used by the performers.
To be frank, the plot revolves around one giant tangle of love. The narrative follows Conrad, a distressed artist who seeks to create new alternative forms of theatre much to the dismay of his mother Emma Arkadina, a former starlet. In the premiere of Conrad’s newest play — or rather, performance event– he casts his questionable actress girlfriend Nina who is later romantically dragged away by mother Emma’s flame, the famous writer Trigorin. In an act of artistic and romantic desperation, Conrad shoots a seagull to present to Nina.
Jake Fava’s performance as Conrad is simply stunning. The anguish that he has for his mother Emma, played by the illustrious Joi Hoffsommer, reverberates in the intimate space. His despair is overwhelming, and Fava takes what Con feels and transfers it into manic physical choices. Hoffsommer’s Emma is aging yet poised and sexy. Her instant objection to her son’s artwork makes her rather unlikeable from the get go, but Hoffsommer’s strong performance garners sympathy for Emma when she is wronged by her lover.
Gary Ambler and Lindsey Gates-Markel play Trigorin and Nina respectively. I must admit, it was a bit strange to see Ambler and Gates-Markel as love interests after last seeing them recently as father and daughter in A Doll’s House Part 2. Nevertheless, the transformation of Nina from doe-eyed to mourning was heightened by Gates-Markel’s pointed vulnerability. Ambler’s Trigorin wasn’t too dissimilar from roles he’s played recently, but he did play up Doyle’s pompousness.
In a framing subplot, gloomy and doomy Mash basks in her woe for Conrad not returning her love while Conrad’s best friend Dev openly pines for her. Hannah Yonan’s portrayal of Mash is intense. Her character provides us with a lot of background through crooning out sad tunes on the ukulele. If you caught this season’s Mamma Mia!, you’d know from her performance as Sophie that she possesses powerhouse vocal skills. (Full disclosure: I directed that production). It was exciting to see her in a production where music wasn’t the focus and she could flaunt her serious acting ability. Mash alongside Eric Beckley’s well-meaning but awkward Dev provides a humorous incongruity in their resulting match. However, it doesn’t seem like Mash quite gets the ending her character deserves.
Additionally, there is Emma’s brother Dr. Eugene Sorn who provides much needed comic commentary. The simplicity of his character along with the genius of actor Bill Kephart creates an amusing foil for the madness the rest of the characters face. However his fate, we learn, is the same as his chaotic counterparts.
Playwright Aaron Posner’s writing is metatheatrical and forces characters and audiences alike to confront their issues head on. Kay Holley’s staging was creative and exciting. I enjoyed several of moments she created, especially when she lined the actors while characters spelled out their problems one by one to the audience. The fourth wall is not broken with Stupid F*#king Bird; it flat out doesn’t exist. The straightforwardness the characters had with the audience allowed for actors to play around. Audience participation isn’t required per se, but the script heavily relies on participation. Please don’t be shy! I promise it is a lot of fun engaging with and responding to the characters.
As an homage to the late playwright of the show’s source material The Seagull, a portrait of Anton Chekov hung in a central location. The portrait almost had a Big Brother effect with Chekov’s presence holding down authority not only on the actors, but the audience and even the playwright. I wondered if and how this portrait would be incorporated into the show. In an exchange of dialogue, Nina and Conrad agreed to meet at “the place.” I was delighted to learn that “the place” was indeed right beneath the portrait. I let out an audible, pleased “ahh.” Chekov really brought us all to “the place” that Easter night, and that led for an evening of theatre I will hold sacred.
Stupid F*#king Bird
The Celebration Company at the Station Theatre
223 N Broadway Ave, Urbana
April 18th to May 4th
All shows at 7:30 p.m. with the exception of a 3 p.m. matinee on April 28th
Tickets: $15 regular, $10 students & seniors
Recommended for those over 16, unless accompanied by a parent/guardian.
All photos courtesy of Kay Holley