Stupid F*cking Bird: A Staged Reading By Placeholder Players

Here we are: standing on Wells Street in front of Sunstone Studios in the shadows of the Pabst Theater and Milwaukee Repertory Theater. A charming little store front that I didn’t know existed until…well…right now!

Here we are: sitting in a cozy little black box theater watching as others file in and find a comfortable seat, all of us wondering what we’ve gotten ourselves into.

Here we are: staring at the cast assembled on stage, all of waiting for whatever is to come next, until an actor proclaims in his best outside voice, we can’t start until someone says, start the fucking play…followed by a voice from out of the ceiling somewhere, in a very sonorous voice, which proclaims, no rather demands, ‘start the fucking play’!

Oooh. That word. The one often referred to as the F Bomb…isn’t in the title just as click bait so to speak. That little four letter word, at one time just a crude street term for a bodily function, is freely used throughout the play in all of it’s shapes and sizes: adjective, noun, verb, adverb, rebuke, and…well and…an expletive. Hardly gratuitous in its various iterations but often shocking nonetheless.

So…the play begins. And I am a bit surprised. I have attended readings before, both in person and online, particularly during the pandemic. But director Kimberly Laberge emphasized during a brief conversation before the play, that this was a staged reading. So instead of actors sitting at table, scripts in hand, or seated in a semi-circle of chairs and moving to a podium to recite their lines on cue, Laberge instead has them acting, interacting, and moving about the simple platform black box stage…but without prominent costumes, no set, no props.

And so the play begins…with all hands on deck…performing a play, scratch that, a site specific event written by aspiring playwright Conrad. It is off to a rousing start before being interrupted by Emma, an actress in this site specific event, an actress professionally, and Conrad’s mother. A note to aspiring playwrights, you might not want to cast your mother in your cutting edge play. But as Conrad and Emma continue to interact, or not, in later scenes, this isn’t about this new play directly. Although certainly Emma doesn’t quite get the play, the problems really stem from an apparent life long conflict between a distracted mother who likes to play the victim and a son who wants his mother’s love and acceptance. And if you think that’s a heavy concept, we are just getting started.

back row, left to right, Kim Emmer, Rick Bingen, Jabril Rilley; front row, Grace Berendt, Bill Molitor, and standing, Mary Grace Seigel. Photo courtesy of Placeholder Players MKE

But what is the play about? Well, of course familial issues as I mentioned just above. And ART vs. Art vs. art? Conrad is trying to do NEW ART but is struggling, so maybe do old Art better or is there only going to be art? And besides society and culture and the things in his head that are holding him back, he’s faced with his mother’s new beau, Trigorin, a very successful and maybe a bit smug author. And then of course, there is the doubt and angst of young love as the four young people try to sort out their feelings for one another and for themselves as well. And of course it gets complicated, very, very complicated. How complicated? Well, after a brief conversation with Trigorin initiated by Nina, Conrad’s love interest and the lead in is theater piece, about what it feels like to be famous and his reply, what does it feel like to be beautiful…they run off together. A similar dynamic plays out between Dev and Mash. Dev loves Mash, but it is suggested at times she is crushing on Conrad…but they somehow come together and find life instead of running away looking for something more perfect.

Grace Berendt and Jabril Rilley, photo courtesy of Placeholder Players MKE

And finally, Sorn, a doctor and Emma’s brother, seems to be the level headed adult in the room…until he reveals his own doubts about his life, his practice, and his relationships. At first to us and then to the other characters.

Which brings us to a new part of this play…Sorn reveals his secret to the audience first…there is no fourth wall here…well…yes there is at times…but every character is aware that they are actors in a play (not just the site specific event portion). And they address each other on personal levels and they will address the audience directly at times and ask for advice at others. And Aaron Posner, the playwright, has made that change so fluid that we don’t always recognize the shift in roles.

Zachary Thomas Woods and Kim Emmer, photo courtesy of Placeholder Players MKE

So, who’s who? Zachary Thomas Woods is Conrad. He plays him to the hilt and maybe a bit over the top at times, but the role requires anger, frustration, depression, and one’s best outside voice (and he feels thwarted – he clearly says so). Woods exemplifies the confusion that Conrad feels. Mary Grace Seigel is Nina and has an apparently softer role initially but she also brings a toughness and edge when she finally decides what she wants and it’s not Conrad and it’s not here.

Mary Grace Seigel and Rick Bingen, photo courtesy of Placeholder Players MKE

Jabril Rilley is Dev, Conrad’s bestie who loves Mash played by Grace Berendt. Rilley is perfect as Dev, asking all the right questions about love and life and being the common sense partner. And Mash eventually comes to see that as well. Berendt exhibits all of the quirkiness and creativity that Mash should exude. Kim Emmer is Emma and easily shifts from ingenue to manipulative mother to hurt lover to quiet acquiescence. And Rick Bingen keeps Trigorin’s cool as he manipulates his relationship with both Emma and Nina. And Bill Molitor as Sorn, brings us that cool detached sure male doctor even when he reveals that he is only acting…even then he never breaks out of his role. I have seen Molitor a number of times including in a previous Laberge direction of “Things I Know To Be True” and he’s just comfortable on stage no matter how trying the situation he finds his character in.

Jabril Rilley, Grace Berendt, Bill Molitor, Zachary Thomas Woods, Kim Emmer, Rick Bingen, Mary Grace Seigel, photo courtesy of Placeholders Players MKE

I didn’t do any research on this play before I headed off to the theater. And I am very happy about that…this play is truly amazing in and of itself…and this cast brought it to absolute life…even without props or formal sets…but purely through their sheer will to bring this thing to the stage. But after I got home and checked out Aaron Posner, I realized that he had also written, “My Name Is Asher Lev“, one of my favorites from a few years ago at the Milwaukee Repertory.

Now, full disclosure. Kimberly Laberge is a personal friend of mine!!!

But for my theater going readers: If you see Kimberly Laberge is directing anything, anywhere, go see it. Whether it is a cutting edge drama like “Stupid Fucking Bird” or a classic musical like “Cabaret“, she has just wowed me.

For my theater producing friends looking for a director –>hire Kimberly Laberge.

I am not sure that Conrad ever got the catharsis that he was demanding near the end, but we did.

photo courtesy of Placeholders Players MKE

P.S. There is a bird in this play…a seagull…as this is labeled as Sort of adapted from The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. Fancy that as we should!