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Review: A punk rock take on Chekhov at Theatre Inconnu

Theatre Inconnu’s latest play continues at Paul Phillips Hall to Dec. 16.

Playwright Aaron Posner lets us know immediately his show is no ordinary adaptation. The first line is: “The play will begin when someone says, ‘Start the f---ing play!’”

The title is another tip-off. Posner’s meta-theatrical opus is called Stupid F---ing Bird. And, true to form, F-bombs are dropped liberally throughout this deconstruction of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull.

A self-consciously irreverent romp, the adaptation has been widely performed and acclaimed since its 2013 premiere. Theatre Inconnu’s new production boasts young performers with energy to burn. On Thursday night there were several moving sequences. Yet, somehow, the performance missed the mark.

Overall the tone was much too broad, steamrolling the script’s nuances and clouding its dramatic power.

Canadian critic and broadcaster Michael Enright once wrote he found Chekhov too fusty. “Too Russian… deeply dark and heavy and smothering, like old furniture” (he subsequently changed his mind). No doubt many modern theatre-goers would agree, finding him grimly Slavic and ponderous — this despite the fact Chekhov subtitled The Seagull “a comedy in four acts.”

Posner’s aims to yank this 1896 masterpiece kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The notion is to be cheeky, funny, maybe even a little punk rock… like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa. The provocative title can be viewed as a crotch-kick at Chekhov’s heavy-handed symbolism.

At the same time the playwright — who obviously admires Chekhov — aims to honour the original play’s dramatic intent. In his script’s introduction Posner says he wants actors to be “funny” — yet at the same time performances should be “emotionally grounded, deeply passionate, intention-drive and relatively realistic.”

The play is fairly faithful to Chekhov’s plot. The characters are presented through a modern lens. In the original, Konstantin is an earnest young playwright attempting to tear down the rules of bourgeois art. In Posner’s play the character becomes Con (M.J. Connelly), a tortured hipster creating a site-specific performance art event.

His mother Emma (Wendy Magahay) is still a vain and famous actor, but now she’s known for TV and film rather than the stage. Mash (Melissa Blank) dresses in black not because she’s in mourning but because she’s into goth fashion. The writer Trigorin (James Johnson) wears the sleeves of his linen blazer rolled up a la Miami Vice.

Posner’s boldest choice is breaking down — or rather, smashing down — the fourth wall. Actors sometimes address the audience directly. “How can I get [Nina] to love me?” Con asked us on Thursday, receiving such replies as “Roses!” and “Just talk to her!” Elsewhere the characters complain about the cost of staging a play with a large cast.

With such antics the playwright wants to make us aware — in a Brechtian manner — that we’re witnessing theatre. Paradoxically, Posner also hopes to pull us in by encouraging the audience to directly interact.

It’s complex, ambitious stuff. To make it work, the actors must strike a fine balance. Director Morgan Gadd has encouraged his cast to perform with gusto; however, some performers have embraced an over-the-top style of acting that borders on two-dimensionality and steamrolls over the play’s dramatic heart.

As Con, Connelly’s face-pulling, scenery-chewing over-acting — while entertaining at times — distances us from the character. Nicholas Guerreiro, playing Dev, embraced a broad style that sometimes worked but too often seemed over the top. The play becomes more serious in the second half. Yet because key performances were not (in the playwright’s words) “emotionally grounded” it was difficult to connect.

That said, on Thursday Eric Grace delivered a truly moving monologue reflecting his character’s existential detachment. He plays a doctor, Sorn, who journeys through life going through all the motions — saying the correct things, making the right gestures — yet feeling precious little. The understated naturalism of Grace’s performance cut through like nothing else that evening.

Kudos also to Melissa Blank for her lovely, unaffected singing and uke-playing. The play continues at Theatre Inconnu’s Paul Phillips Hall to Dec. 16.