By Adam Abou-Nasr
Days after World Mental Health Day, the comedy “Stupid F*king Bird” opened at the Omaha Community Playhouse. Almost ironically, all seven characters (and the plot) are driven by severe mental health issues never mentioned by the show. It’s raw and honest, if not a little rough.
A parody of/tribute to Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” “Bird” stars Playhouse newcomer Beau Fisher as the overthinking young playwright Conrad who wants to impress his mother, aging actress Emma (Sonia Keffer), by writing “performance art” pieces for his girlfriend Nina (Alissa Hanish) in which she will star. Nina is obsessed with the writing of Emma’s lover, Doyle Trigorin (Kevin Anderson), and the two hit it off.
Dialogue is a bit long-winded as characters weave through philosophical debates and monologues, hoping to explain life, love, loss and pain to each other. Most laughs come at the expense of theater tropes as the cast pokes fun at the medium with a near-constant wink to the audience. Conrad’s best friend, Dev (Raydell Cordell III), Dev’s girlfriend, Mash (Aanya Sagheer) and Conrad’s uncle, Dr. Sorn (Michael Markey), add little to the plot but offer much-needed grounding to the over-the-top anxieties of the other characters. Sagheer’s beautifully nihilisticukulele songs may be the show’s standout.
I never got a good grip on the characters’ ages as Conrad’s youthful optimism and self-obsession ruled the stage. Nina exudes the type of free-spiritedness that’s intoxicating in youth and irritating by 25. Mash mopes around in all black, still pining for her first crush. And yet, they all drink so casually. Everyone in every scene seems to have a drink, but I don’t think anyone ever mentions alcohol at all. These characters have clearly been drinking for years, ignoring it along with their other mental issues. They’re also practiced swearers, peppering in obscenities almost poetically. Maybe I’m used to people burying their troubles by a certain age, but that wouldn’t read as well on stage.
Fisher certainly makes Conrad’s anxieties feel larger than life. His exaggerated movements are a bit big for such a small stage, but so are his thoughts for someone so young. Fisher goes for some cheap laughs by what I’ll call “bothering the audience,” but the traditional theater-goers he singles out ate it up. Cordell also does a great job with the audience, even though he offered pie to the people right in front of and behind me, but not to me. Cordell is the ray of sunshine here.
Keffer was an early favorite as she soliloquized on being judged by others, daring anyone else to be perfect. I truly believed she was tired of society’s nonsense. But I had largely ignored Markey’s Dr. Sorn. Late in the show, Markey turned to the audience to explain that he had always been ignored. He’s been alone, almost as a background character in his own life. You can’t know what someone else has done with whom “or with whoms.” My own mother snorted next to me. I didn’t ask what she had done “with whoms.” Still, this old man’s lifetime of loneliness hurt to listen to.
As the characters indulge in their own selfish sicks, I realized I’d seen this story before, just not in a theater. Conrad’s explosive third-act meltdown is almost like a disturbing rite of passage as his idealistic worldview shatters. He’s ill-prepared for adulthood no matter how many times his mother tells the audience how well she raised him. Childhood dreams never really become reality, and the mentally ill Conrad never received any help to cope with that fact. His disconnect from reality breaks him, and everyone else just moves on. The audience laughed. It wasn’t funny.
“Stupid F*ing Bird” is not accessible, but its focus on mentally unhealthy artists subverting the very theater in which they perform makes it the perfect juxtaposition to the mainstage’s outgoing “Mamma Mia!” This show hurts, but you’ll smile. You’ll laugh. You might even grow some empathy.
“Stupid F*ing Bird” is playing in the Omaha Community Playhouse’s Howard Drew Theatre from Oct. 13 to Nov. 12. For ticket information, call the box office at 402-553-0800.