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April 29, 2016 Comments Off on Review: With “Birds” and “Asher Lev” Aaron Posner Takes Over Seattle Theater Views: 2330 *Seattle Theaterland, Arts & Entertainment, Reviews, Stage

Review: With “Birds” and “Asher Lev” Aaron Posner Takes Over Seattle Theater

It’s interesting to note that 2016 seems to be the year that Seattle theaters pay tribute to various playwrights by showcasing productions of multiple works BY certain artists. So far, we’ve had the “Stephen Adly Guirgis Festival” (The Motherfucker with the Hat at Washington Ensemble Theatre and In Arabia We’d All Be Kings at Theater Schmeater earlier in the year; The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is set for a summer production). AND, we’ve also had the “Sharr White Festival” with productions of his Annapurna from Theatre 22 and Seattle Public’s recently closed The Other Place.

Now on Seattle stages, we have a new festival: “The Aaron Posner Theater Festival” is in full swing as both ACT and New Century Theatre Company offer up plays by Mr. Posner. ACT grabbed the trendier of the two plays, Mr. Posner’s very popular take on Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull with the “naughty” title of Stupid Fucking Bird, while New Century is staging the playwright’s adaptation of Chaim Potok’s popular 1972 autobiographical novel, My Name is Asher Lev, about a Hasidic Jewish artist in New York City in conflict with his devout family and religious community.

Photo by Chris Bennion — "Stupid F*cking Bird" currently on stage at ACT with Keiko Green, Connor Toms, Jasmine Jean Sim and Adam Standley.

Photo by Chris Bennion — “Stupid F*cking Bird” currently on stage at ACT with Keiko Green, Suzanne Bouchard, Connor Toms, Jasmine Jean Sim (in white) and Adam Standley.

Review: Stupid Fucking Bird by Aaron Posner. Suggested by The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. Produced by ACT. Directed by Jessica Kubzansky. With Suzanne Bouchard, Keiko Green, MJ Sieber, Jasmine Jean Sim, Adam Standley, G. Valmont Thomas, Connor Toms. Now through May 8, 2016 at ACT.

We’ll start with that foully named fowl which is foul in more ways than one. Stupid Fucking Bird is a clever play on words and a surefire way to grab some attention; nothing grabs people’s attention like profanity! But, the title and the way this play has been marketed (and, not just by ACT; all theater companies who have put on this play) as a “naughty and profane” parody of Chekhov’s classic work is a bit of fraud. It SEEMS like we’re going to get a campy night of sending up Chekhovian pretensions but the reality is Mr. Posner has adapted The Seagull into a contemporary take on the material. This IS the story of The Seagull with minor characters eliminated and some streamlining of plot, but at 2 and a half hours and with all the major characters and plots in place, this actually is Chekhov’s work. But, oddly enough, Chekhov isn’t officially credited.

As in the original, our story focuses on the frustrated young playwright “Con” who is the son of a celebrated and successful actress, “Emma” who’s visiting the family home now owned by her older brother, “Sorn”. Emma is accompanied by her younger lover, the successful writer “Trig” who finds himself falling for a friend of Con’s named “Nina” who yearns to be a successful actress as well. Meanwhile, the lovelorn servant “Mash” is pursued by a neighbor named “Dev” who’s a bit of boob but relatively ok with his lowly status in life. To complicate matters, Dev loves Mash while Mash yearns for Con who in turn is in love with Nina who has developed a passion for Trig who reciprocates much to the chagrin of Emma. Meanwhile, poor old Sorn is too old to get a love interest. Some of these couples end up together and some don’t and things come to an explosive conclusion before it’s all over.

Just like The Seagull.

OK…there ARE differences. Stupid Fucking Bird IS a bit more obviously comedic than the very darkly humored Russian original but it’s far from being a satirical kooky farce. There are also changes to characters. Mash is a bit more sympathetic (in my opinion) than “Seagull’s” Masha. Trig is a bigger success in this version (and blander) and as for Emma…well, to be frank, Emma is a bigger bitch than her Russian counterpart, “Arkadina” who shows considerable more compassion towards her depressed suicidal son. Maybe it’s because Arkadina is a theater actress and Emma is more of a coldblooded Hollywood type?

And, that’s the chief problem with Mr. Posner’s script…it cuts out a lot of Chekhov’s poetry and magical emotion. This version is certainly funnier, on the surface, and clearly gives all its sympathies to Con who emerges as the best written and strongest character in the play (whereas, in the original the point of view is a bit more evenly distributed between Konstantin, Nina and Trigorin). The play is witty and smart and it’s cleverly aware of its own sense of awareness. It’s a tad long and a bit repetitive at times (and the other characters other than Con, are rather ignored) but overall I would have to say, I like this version of The Seagull but…I don’t love it. It woos but it doesn’t quite “seal the deal”.

As for this specific production, Jessica Kubzansky does a fine job of directing, even within the annoying “in the round” confines of the Allen Theatre. It helps that she has a terrific local cast, that includes Keiko Green and MJ Sieber at their best as the mismatched but doomed to couplehood, Mash and Dev. The best scenes of Stupid Fucking Bird involve these two interacting with each other, or with our leading man, Adam Standley as the frustrated in all things writer, Con. It’s yet another bravura piece of acting from Mr. Standley who is just on a creative roll of late, turning in great performance after great performance. It could just be smart casting…putting the absolute right actor into an available role, but after his success in last fall’s Mr. Burns: a post-electric play, also at ACT, and his delightful turn as Bud Frump in the 5th Avenue Theatre’s How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying this winter, it could be said that it’s the Season of Adam Standley. He’s not the only reason to check out Stupid Fucking Bird but he’s a compelling one.

In a nutshell, Stupid Fucking Bird isn’t stupid but it is pretty entertaining.

It’s just not as good as the fucking original.

Conner Neddersen and Amy Thone in New Century Theatre Company's MY NAME IS ASHER LEV by Aaron Posner. Photography © Elise Bakketun.

Conner Neddersen and Amy Thone in New Century Theatre Company’s MY NAME IS ASHER LEV by Aaron Posner. Photography © Elise Bakketun.

Review: My Name is Asher Lev by Aaron Posner. Adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok. Produced by New Century Theatre Company. Directed by Sheila Daniels. With Bradford Farwell, Conner Neddersen, Amy Thone. Now through May 21, 2016 at 12th Avenue Arts.

Up the (Capitol) Hill at 12th Avenue Arts, there’s a completely different Aaron Posner play going on. It’s also an adaptation but of a totally different kind of work than Chekhov’s play. It’s Mr. Posner’s version of Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev and it’s the spring production for New Century Theatre Company. It’s the story of a young Jewish American artist at odds with his Orthodox Jewish family and community over his choices as an artist. Both the original book and this play center on that discussion…the agonizing conflict between art and faith. While many plays deal with issues of religion and spirituality; after all, it’s been a central component of storytelling for hundreds of years, it’s really the ONLY issue in “Asher Lev”. While I can and have enjoyed many literary works that involve the issues of faith and spirituality, it’s not my chosen “theme du jour” when it comes to a night of theater. When a story is ALL about being faithful to religious dogma, I’m afraid you tend to lose this old apostate….

So, to be blunt, this ISN’T the play for me. Its themes aren’t themes I’m that interested in. It’s an adaptation of a “well told story” that isn’t my kind of literature or theater. It feels very old fashioned and frankly, I’m confused why New Century chose this play to produce. To be honest, if feels like a play more suited to Strawberry Theatre Workshop or even the folks over at Taproot who specialize in these kinds of “faith based” works. Nothing in New Century’s past really suggest why they took on this project. How does “Asher Lev” fit in with their previous productions of Kafka’s The Trial or the darkly Danish noir of last fall’s Festen or their award winning production of The Flick? I’m afraid I don’t know.

As for this production, it is what it is. It’s a relatively taut 90 minutes or so, with only three actors. Conner Neddersen makes for a compellingly earnest Asher…while teetering on the edge of seeming to be a bit too old for the part. Bradford Farwell has the tougher job of playing all the other male roles, including Asher’s father, as well as their community Rebbe and an apostate art teacher named Jacob Kahn who introduces Asher into the art world. He does his usual strong job of delineating between all those different characters, which isn’t easy considering it requires him to subtly change from one Jewish New York accent to another while making them all unique.

Amy Thone is the only other actor, who primarily plays Asher’s mom. It’s a lovely centered performance; her Rivkeh is fiercely intelligent and devoutly loyal to all the people in her life but she’s not afraid to vent her frustrations with her son, her husband and her faith when they put up obstacles to her devotion. She adds some lovely gravitas to the proceedings.

And, to be frank, the actors were the chief asset of this production for me. There are moments where things go a bit off the rails; some shouty moments where it becomes a bit too “bad Jewish stereotypical melodrama” (I had a brief shuddery flashback to remembering Laurence Olivier shouting at Neil Diamond in the awful 1980 film, The Jazz Singer: “I HAFF NO SON!!!” followed by some not so subtle sleeve ripping then a medley of Neil Diamond songs.) And, I didn’t really understand all of Sheila Daniels’ directorial choices. There’s some odd lowering/raising of a window frame set element that was more distracting than enlightening. And, both the text and the production itself feel very dated. It’s like traveling back in time to 1979 to see a play at a nice college theater. Safe, well told tales told in a gentle, old world sort of way.

Again…not my kind of story. Not my kind of theater. If you enjoy tales of faith and more traditional forms of theater making, you might very well enjoy this production. As always, opinions are subjective.

As for the Aaron Posner Festival of Theater…I’d like to see him write something on his own for a change. Maybe avoid adaptations for awhile.

Or, do a mash up. Both Stupid Fucking Bird and My Name is Asher Lev are about artists fighting for their destiny to BE artists. “My Stupid Fucking Name is Asher Lev” could be a sure fire hit for 2017.

 

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