Singing Like A Seagull: Ukulele Music in Sideshow's Stupid F**king Bird
Its technical name is "tenor archtop ukulele"—not the cigar-box toy we associate with raccoon-coated roaring-twenties college boys and backyard tiki parties, but a relative of the lute, the mandolin and a pre-World War Two jazz guitar. So why is a character from a fin-de-siècle Russian classic playing mid-eighties pop tunes on one? Well, it's because this isn't really Chekhov's Seagull, but Aaron Posner's smarter-than-you'd-expect "(sort of) adaptation" thereof entitled Stupid F**king Bird, produced to critical acclaim in 2014 by the Sideshow Theatre Company and transferred in 2015 to the spacious mainstage of Victory Gardens' Biograph Theater.
Katy Carolina Collins portrays Mash, a gloomy, goth-y young woman who seeks solace for her unfulfilled crush on her boss's son in likewise gloomy songs ("Life is a muddle/life is a chore/life is a burden/life is a bore/the apple is rotten/down to the core...You're born, and then you live, and then you die/You never really get to know the reason why")
In real life, Collins is anything but gloomy, however. "My friend Lindsey picked up the ukulele about four years ago, and we started writing songs together. I played piano and violin already and knew how to read music, so the transposition to a four-string scale was easy."
The ukulele appearing in the show is missing the hollow body found on acoustical guitars, instead boasting "f-holes" like a fiddle, as well as an electronic device enabling it to be plugged into an amplifier. Was this to accommodate the bigger room at the Biograph? "It was, and the business with strolling down the aisles through the auditorium, too—we didn't want just the front rows hearing the lyrics. The amped system also allows me to finger-pick, as well as strum, the accompaniment."
Music in Chekhov's plays usually means sad aristocratic ladies playing the piano or robust soldiers and serfs playing folk instruments. Mash's choice of instrument was the decision of the playwright and of original composer James Sugg, reports Collins, "Since Mash is something of a commoner, herself, the ukulele could qualify as a 'folk instrument.' Besides, it's ironic that Mash, who's such a dark cloud, should sing her depressing ballads on such a cheerful sweet-sounding instrument."
The closest the play comes to a happy moment is the scene where Dev, played by Matt Fletcher, and his full-size guitar joins Mash for a duet about the world being "always too much and never enough"—harmony hinting at their future contentment following capitulation to a marriage-of-default. What draws the most enthusiastic audience response, though, are the— ahem!—mash-ups that entertain us during the scenery changes (one combining Prince's "When U Were Mine" and Robert Palmer's "Addicted To Love" and another slipping effortlessly from the Eagles' "Desperado" to Oasis' "Wonderwall").
Despite the selection spanning nearly forty years, there is never a lack of playgoers prepared to sing along when Collins invites them to do so. "There's sometimes a bit of generation gap between the 'Desperado' and the 'Wonderwall' choruses," Collins admits, "but I've had houses where every single person in the theater knew every single word of all the songs. Those are the nights that always make me feel like a rock star."
Stupid F**king Bird runs at the Biograph Theater through August 30.
Mary Shen Barnidge
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