Wilbury Theatre Group's hilarious, insightful 'Bird', playing through Feb. 6

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It seems as if the world has finally caught up with Anton Chekhov. The 18th century Russian playwright was ahead of his time; his observations and writings about the follies of the human condition anticipated the 20th century’s theatre of the absurd and all the angst of existentialism. Existence is ridiculous but art is enlightening and inspiring. Or is it?

In recent years our post-modern world has witnessed some adaptations of Chekhov’s plays, as we’re still as perplexed as he was about life, love, art and everything else. Christopher Durang did an “Uncle Vanya” update and now The Wilbury Group has mounted a splendid production of Aaron Posner’s “Stupid…Bird”, a rich and rewarding update of “The Seagull.”

It may seem an audacious idea to re-write a classic, but that’s part of the point here. As we are reminded by the words emblazoned upon a poster depicting the face of the Playwright upon our arrival: “and the world is, of course, nothing but our conception of it.” Here we encounter various individuals, artists and the hopelessly lovelorn, which are often the same thing, who only desire the seemingly impossible-the chance to remake their world.

Chekhov knew well that it is our impossible yearnings that make us both tragic and ridiculous creatures, though slipping on life’s banana peel never seems funny to us. All here want some essential thing they cannot attain, the love of their life who loves someone else, or, in the case of Con, to create a new and revolutionary form of art. That’s all.

Would-be writer Con despairs of the phoniness of life depicted in the theatre and wants a new art form where “nobody’s pretending to be someone else.” Part of the irony here is that, as in real life, all the people in this play are utterly self-involved and burrowed into the little fictions that they have created for themselves. And they all know that they’re in a play.

In “Stupid…Bird” characters at times break ‘the fourth wall’ and talk directly to the audience and comment on the play itself. Posner’s play is self-aware and self referential to it’s own source material and our knowledge of it. And as it’s characters desperately strive for new art forms the play, slowly, organically and inexorably does precisely that.

But the beauty part in all of this is the play’s utter unpretentiousness. The questions posed to us by these characters are simple, honest and essential. The play has moved beyond mere clever deconstruction and the new art form created here is a type of ‘hyper-naturalism’ acknowledging that actors and audience are all in the same room spending the same time together and that we watching ain’t necessarily seeking enlightenment but a respite from our own petty and personal concerns. And yet even as that fact is recognized some pretty profound questions and observations are addressed.

The characters in this play have plenty of concerns of their own, both petty and profound. The stakes of their despair are totally real and the fact that this tale is told drolly and delightfully does not diminish or devalue these feelings in the least. The play is interspersed with quirky hipster ballads too, singing little songs of woe sweetly and soulfully.

The look of the show is sweet too, handmade and homespun. A simple wooden platform surrounded by scaffolding, open at the back to reveal a makeshift dressing area and racks of costumes. Blinds painted with birch trees suffice to create an outdoor arena. That’s all we need to know to know that we are simply watching a group of actors putting on a show.

This charm is enhanced and maintained by Mark Peckham’s direction and he spins this tale well by keeping the action and interaction taut and nimble throughout.

Josh Short is perfect as aspiring artist Con, he’s driven, dynamic and doggedly determined to get into our heads. As his famous actress of a mother, Melissa Penick is wonderful at being horrible and self-centered and also excels at uttering some heartfelt and harsh truths.

Brien Lang, as acclaimed author Trigorin, seems to ever have a smug aura about him, slyly confident in his own superiority. As Doctor Sorn Vince Petronio is adept at conveying sad and hollow self-awareness, a realization that he lacks something essential within himself.

Andrew Iacovelli is sheer sweetness as Dev, a good-natured boob of a guy. As Mash, Rachel Delude is a deadpan delight, managing to make existential dread seem laugh out loud funny.

Shannon Hartman is wonderfully compelling as Nina, sweet, plaintive, yearning and ultimately heartbreaking, it’s small wonder that everybody falls for her.

“Is this funny to you?” Con, challenging the audience, asks at one point. The answer here is yes, and it is all thrilling and thoughtful too, and it doesn’t devalue the true depths of your feelings to acknowledge your utter ridiculousness either. Chekhov, with his clear-eyed view of our foibles and follies, knew that very well. Posner’s adaptation does the master one better, explaining the trick even as it fools us. Though this is a new take on an old form the structural rules of this ‘tragical-comedy’ must be obeyed but even as we know what the outcome is the play manages to startle, to challenge some basic assumptions and make us think anew. Though one character here decries how classics today are ‘made accessible’, “Stupid…Bird” does precisely that, stripping away the stodgy ennui some associate with Chekhov right down to the bare bones and beating heart beneath.

Perhaps the most marvelous thing about “Stupid…Bird” is that, even as some of the characters argue that art is defunct and dead, it slyly reminds us why we need live theatre. The show is simply beautiful, a funny and philosophical yearning for authenticity in our lives. Yes, that title does contain an explicative, one that reflects the frustration in our search for meaning, but I’m here to tell you that this is a bleeping wonderful show. Alternately hilarious and insightful, the show packs a cathartic wallop and is a must-see for folks who care and think about life, love, art and all that good stuff.

Act fast to catch “Stupid…Bird” at The Wilbury Theatre Group, Providence, now through February 6. See www.thewilburygroup.org for more details.

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