Anyone who walks past the Roxy Theater marquee and sees a showtime for "Stupid F---ing Bird," could be forgiven for assuming it's a new indie comedy movie.
It's a play that nationally recognized writer Aaron Posner "sort of adapted" from "The Seagull" by Russian master Anton Chekhov, in a production from a local troupe, BetweenTheLines.
The script made perfect sense for the group, which is wrapping up its first season and its fourth production in total, all of scripts only a few years old with a contemporary edge.
The group's founder, Mason Wagner, had discussed writing an adaptation of "The Seagull" when he came upon Posner's work. He didn't finish reading it before he knew he wanted to direct it.
The title of "Bird" may give the impression that it's the work of an upstart, but Aaron Posner brought a well-balanced and celebrated resume to the project: Over 25 years, his original work has been produced around the country, and he's directed classic works as well.
In an interview with DC Metro Arts, he refers to it as one of his Chekhov "variations" rather than an adaptation. He's also rewritten the Russian master's "Three Sisters" and "Uncle Vanya."
In case the title didn't give it away, "Bird" is set in the present day and written with colloquial dialogue. Wagner said it's irreverent — the characters seem to speak before they've had the chance to think, lending it an off-the-cuff modern feel.
Wagner believes that Chekhov's script was ripe for an adaptation because of some of its themes and plot.
"The script is really self-aware of that, too. Why new forms? It's constantly asking that question: Why are we doing this? Maybe we should do the old forms better," Wagner said.
In Chekhov's first act, Konstantine, the son of a famous actress, Emma, stages an original experimental play. It stars his love interest, Nina, and goes horribly as his mother denigrates it mid-performance.
In Posner's, Conrad stages a "site-specific performance event" that uses movement and modern poetry, and his mother hates it.
"If 'The Seagull' is all about new forms, part of the update is borrowing from new forms that are currently in experimental theater and integrating that into the script," Wagner said.
He works in soliloquies and songs, which Wagner said resemble early Conor Oberst on ukulele, with lines pulled from Chekhov's script.
"Aaron Posner's using everything at his disposal to expose the subtext that was in 'The Seagull,' " he said.
It's an ensemble work for a cast of seven, enough people for overlapping unrequited passions and missed opportunities as time passes.
"There's seven people trying desperately to articulate how they feel and try to get what they want, and that just makes for interesting theater at its core," he said.
"I think people will continue to update Chekhov as time moves on. He doesn't lose relevance because he's so adept at revealing what's underneath the mundane way we live our lives, how much we feel," he said.
"The Seagull" was set at a Russian country estate near a lake, making it simple to plant "Bird" on the shore of the Flathead. The first scene is in a "multi-purpose space" where Conrad might work on his play, and the second in a kitchen. Mike Fink of the Montana Rep is designing sets.
Nathan Snow, who played Benvolio in UM's "Romeo and Juliet" and Billy Bones in "Treasure Island," is cast as Conrad. Sophia Jensen, a newcomer to theater, won the role of Nina during auditions. Jordan Nokleby (Rep's "The Great Gatsby"), Ken Grinde, E.T. Varney, Julie Rae O'Connor and Blake Sherman round out the cast.
Wagner, 24, studied theater at the University of Montana and toured with the Montana Repertory Theatre, the professional company in residence at UM.
Last year, he founded BetweenTheLines as a means to stage "The Flick," a three-hour script by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Baker. With its cast of inarticulate young employees of a movie theater, Wagner reached out to the Roxy Theater about staging it there: they could seat the audience on stage and place the actors in the rows: a premade set.
Nonetheless, putting on the play was an experiment. "I really didn't know if people would come. I still don't know," he said.
Turnout was high enough that they returned in the fall for a three-show season: all contemporary plays that could realistically be staged at the Roxy with minimal sets and an emphasis on scripts and acting.
The Roxy, a nonprofit, offered free space since it fit in with their focus on new independent movies.
Hechose another Baker script, "The Aliens," and British playwright's Nick Payne's "Constellations."
The latter required only two cast members: locals Jeff Medley and Kate Scott as a couple. Drawing on psychics and abstract multi-verse theories, the script consists of more than 50 short scenes in which the couple's interactions are pushed through variations large and small that affect the outcome of their relationship.
Despite the experimental form, it's a funny and heart-rending work, and both Medley and Scott were excellent. With strong word-of-mouth, they almost sold out their shows for the second weekend.
Wagner will likely take the summer off — he's heading to his hometown of Saranac Lake in upstate New York to direct a small professional production of "1984."
He's planning another season starting next October. He's been surprised by and thankful for the support, particularly from people in their 20s and 30s, who have responded to the offerings. Those, in tandem with the casual atmosphere at the Roxy, where you can buy organic popcorn and local craft beer, seem to have drawn in people who may not regularly go to see theater.
"I think a lot of people have been alienated from having a good experience with the theater. That could be for a million different reasons. But contemporary shows really do mean something to people now," he said.