Conrad is depressed. Nina, the girl he has loved since childhood, thinks of him only as a friend. Everything he does irritates his mother Emma, who only cares about keeping her young lover, Trigorin, in line.
Yet, his best friend Dev is not much better off. He’s in love with Mash, who only wears black because she’s in mourning for her life. The only human being at peace in “This Stupid F##king Bird” is Sorn, a middle-aged doctor and uncle to Conrad.
The play, being performed this weekend by the University of Maine’s School of the Performing Arts, is a 21st century update of “The Seagull,” by 19th century playwright Anton Chekhov. Written by Aaron Posner, the two-act play is funny, irreverent and full of inside jokes about its source material.
The student cast on opening night last week gave a modern twist to Chekhov’s tragic family saga by creating a tight-knit ensemble that let theatergoers feel like they were peering over a neighbor’s fence, enjoying the dysfunction. Once in a while the actors talk to the audience and they expect theatergoers to answer back.
Theater professor Tom Mikotowicz was slated to direct “This Stupid F##king Bird.” But he was placed on leave Dec. 11, about two weeks after auditions were to be held.
Meg Taintor, producing artistic director of Opera House Arts for the past three years, was brought in to direct the show. The Stonington company in July 2015 produced an unusual and stunningly beautiful production of “The Seagu ll,” directed by Peter Richards, that was performed on the grounds of and inside a barn at a saltwater farm.
One of Taintor’s strengths as a director is her ability to shape a cast into an ensemble that works together almost as if it were one entity. Student actors sometimes try to upstage and out act each other but there was none of that in “Stupid F##cking Bird.” Taintor also uses the thrust stage, that juts far out into the audience, to great advantage. The near constant movement by the actors gives the show a frenetic feel that fits well with the pace of modern life.
Elijah McTiernan spews Conrad’s angst all over the stage and up and down the aisles. McTiernan lets no one, not even Nina, comfort his Conrad. The actor gives a feisty and fiery performance as the consummate angry young man who wants desperately to be loved but is pretty unlovable.
By stripping away some of Chekhov’s theatrical trappings, the playwright also discarded some characters’ backstories that made them more sympathetic to audiences. Because of that, Nicole Felix has little choice but to portray Emma as a neglectful, self-absorbed, bourgeois mother rather than a person forced to make choices to support her extended family financially and leave her art behind. Felix deftly portrays the aging actress who never took to mothering.
The biggest surprise in the cast is Curran Grant as Trigoin, Emma’s lover. He is nearly unrecognizable from his one-note performance as Sid in “Pajama Game” a year ago. Grant gives a multi-dimensional performance as the slightly sleazy but charming lover of Emma and seducer of Nina. As an actor, Grant has grown enormously since last year and thrived under Taintor’s direction.
Reed Davis is that rare college actor who can convincingly portray a character decades his senior. His Sorn is a man comfortable with himself, his approaching old age and his old soulful nature. Davis gives a quiet strength and depth to the character playwright Parsons probably never imagined.
As Nina, Isabella Etro is delightful as the hopeful but doomed heroine. Caitlyn Rooms and Alan Liam Estes as Mash and Dev, respectively, also give fine, layered performances.
Dan Bilodeau’s set, especially the image of Chekhov on a pair of sliding doors, is inspired as is Jamie Grant’s complex lighting design. The costumes, by Jonna Kaliber, are equally excellent with the seagull outfit worn by Nina in the First Act, a standout.
Under Taintor’s guidance, the cast and crew of this production have spread their wings and soared in ways and in different directions than they most likely have not been able to do before. “Stupid F##king Bird” is a triumph for the students, the School of Performing Arts and the director.
“Stupid F##king Bird” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m Sunday at Hauck Auditorium at the University of Maine. For tickets, call 581-1755 or visit umaine.edu/spa/tickets.
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.