In theater, the imaginary barrier separating an audience from the action on stage is called the fourth wall — a sort of make-believe TV screen that, by mutual agreement, keeps art on one side and spectators on the other.
Artists have been fucking with the fourth wall for decades now, inviting the audience to a naughty peek behind the Oz-like curtain where the dirty secrets of creativity hide. In the wrong hands, the device is cloying and cheap and self-satisfied, like listening to a bong circle of conspiracy theorists.
Such is certainly not the case in Aaron Posner’s latest play, which is currently receiving its Northwest premiere at Oregon Contemporary Theatre under strong direction of Craig Willis.
In Stupid Fucking Bird, a modern-day parlor drama of unrequited love and thwarted passions based loosely on Chekov’s The Seagull, Posner not only addresses but utterly dismantles the fourth wall: Characters stop and critique the play; actors suddenly seek help from the audience; they wonder aloud what it’s all about, asking if we really need one more depressing, nihilistic drama about this sad, depressing world.
Such an inquiry could go wrong in a thousand ways, but Posner holds it all together with a brilliant combination of grace and humor that sidesteps indulgence to tackle the deeper issues of humanity — love, loss, suicide and the limits of art, its consolations as well as its failures.
The cast is damn-near perfect: Joseph Workman plays Con, a tortured young writer pining after his gorgeous muse, the would-be actress Nina (Roxanne Fox). Nina, in turn, is deeply smitten with Trig (Ted deChatelet), the famous writer who just so happens to be the lover of Con’s mother, the aging movie star Emma (Tinamarie Ivey). The gloomy songwriter Mash (Amy Jones), in turn, yearns after Con, while happy-go-lucky Dev (Jason Rowe) is painfully in love with her.
And Emma’s brother Soren (Bary Shaw), a doctor approaching his 60th birthday, just sadly and silently suffers, observing them all.
It sounds like a stupid fucking soap opera, and that’s certainly part of the joke. But Stupid Fucking Bird is so much more than a clever joke. By questioning the very nature and function of art, and by turning its own mechanisms inside-out, the play achieves a level of artistry that is uncommon and profound. Call it anti-art, perhaps: art that is not simply for art’s sake.
Whatever you call it, it rattles the cages and, even with clipped wings, it soars. — Rick Levin
Stupid Fucking Bird plays through Oct. 3 at Oregon Contemporary Theatre; 465-1506 or octheatre.org.