Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Seagull"

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note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Larry Stark


"The Seagull"

by Anton Chekhov
Translated by Paul Schmidt
Directed by Janos Szasz

Set Design by Riccardo Hernandez
Costume Design by David Zinn
Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind
Sound Design by David Remedios
Vocal Coach Nancy Houfek
Dramaturgs Ryan McKittrick, Lynde Rosario
Production Stage Manager Chris De Camillis

Konstantin Treplev......Mickey Solis
Nina......................Molly Ward
Irina Arkadina........KarenMacDonald
Boris Trigorin.........Brian Dykstra
Masha.....................Nina Kassa
Dr. Yevgeny Dorn.......Thomas Derrah
Semyon Medvedenko.........Shawn Cody
Paulina..........Cheryl D. Singleton
Ilya Shamrayev..........Remo Airaldi
Pyotr Sorin.............Jeremy Geidt
Yakov......................Dan Pecci

Dear Jed,
It was a pleasure to meet you in the act-break at Loeb Drama Center last night, and I'm glad you liked the A.R.T. treatment of "The Seagull" a little more than I did. I hope my talking of what I objected to didn't dampen your enthusiasm. The fact is I thought the cast did an excellent and often moving reading of the play; it was only when the set and some peculiar physicalizations of emotion pulled my attention from these living human beings that The Critic in me was enraged.

I like the fact that the whole play was told from the point-of-view of the young, angry playwright (Konstantin, played by Mickey Solis). That is why the play began, not as Chekhov did 113 years ago, but with the playwright sitting alone in a theatre reading lines from his new play. It's why, not only during the staged-reading of that play but throughout the evening, Konstantin picked out and illuminated specific faces with his hand-held spotlight. (Janos Szasz is, after all, an award-winning film director.) It's why, I think, at the end of the play it did not return to the frivolity of the rest of the cast (most of them Konstantin's family) playing games, as Chekhov did; instead it ended with a blackout on a bare stage when the playwright killed himself. So, you were correct, this was not like any time I'd seen "The Seagull" before.

As a young writer, Konstantin both envies and detests the successful wordsmith Boris Trigorin (Brian Dykstra) --- and there's a bit of Oedipal subtext here: Boris is the newest lover of Konstantin's famous-actress mother (Karen MacDonald) and the two are shamelessly and deliciously physical about it in public. (I found their physicalities jarringly overt and unrealistic, and wondered why the others on-stage didn't seem offended.) It's even worse when Konstantin's actress --- the neighbor's daughter Nina (Molly Ward); Konstantin is hopelessly in love with her --- finds the famous novellist much more interesting than an UN-published playwright and runs off to Moscow after him.

But, in a sense, the play is also about Fame --- its glamours and its drawbacks. Boris would rather go fishing than finish that short-story, and complains he is always taking notes to write about later rather than really Living. The famous actress would prefer to be in some hotel-room on tour memorizing new lines, and apparently she never feels fulfilled or alive unless onstage. Worse, the yearning for fame destroys both the young lovers.

Some of what I've said may owe to my familiarity with the play, but this cast did a good job, not only with this essential thrust, but in bringing alive those other, traditional "Chekhovian" people: Jeremy Geidt as old Uncle Sorin, dominated by Remo Airaldi's gruff manager of Sorin's farm; Nina Kassa as Masha, who loves Konstantin but escapes into a loveless marriage to schoolteacher Medvedenko (Shawn Cody); Sheryl D. Singleton's Paulina, in love with Thomas Derrah's burnt-out ladies' man Dr. Dorn (the only gynecologist in the county). In variations under other names these appear in most of his major plays, yet this excellent cast brought them all on-stage live and new.

When I said you liked the show more than I, I think I meant your seeing all these good and positive things. Unfortunately, I saw a few others:

Szasz the Director and his Set Designer Riccardo Hernandez set the play in a theatre --- from the look of the enormous murals on the wall (three angels with rudimentary golden wings, less like Russian Icon figures but with the bent necks and pen-nib noses of 14th Century England or Spain) a ruined church --- on the side of a lake. But from the lakes and puddles ONstage that the actors sloshed and splashed through, and the breaks in the walls, it could have been New Orleans shortly after Katrina. My Inner Critic asks ... Why? The one advantage was that lights spilling onto ripples cast lake-like shimmers on the wall.

The play began with Konstantin sitting in the center of a single, long row of empty seats across the Loeb Drama Center's hugely wide stage --- emphasizing that space, and drawing the attention down to that aspect of the stage, as though it were a letter-slot. The seats were on four wheeled-wagons and could be pushed around for emphasis or reconfigured by actor/stagehands; but when actors went "off-stage" they often sat at the back, like lifeless dolls waiting to be animated, or they lurked in the shadows (Konstantin did so repeatedly), so they were seeing and in a sense commenting upon scenes the playwright meant them never to understand.

At the beginning of Act Two (the 3rd act in Chekhov's original) the actress says wearily, triumphantly, she's "finally all packed" for the trip back to Moscow. And there is, center-stage, a veritable mountain of luggage --- trunks to be stood or sat on, and fifty or more suitcases neatly stacked, with stage-hands bringing more. Okay, that's an acceptible expressionist exaggeration --- it's what was done with them my Critic didn't understand: the actors attacked the luggage! Now that might be understandable for Sorin, who hates the country but isn't going back to the city, when he pokes and jabs at them angrily with his cane. But later when Konstantin and his Mum have a rageing fight, he begins slinging suitcases across the stage, and does so for what seems an eternity. Again, Why? Things that inescapably significant in live theater have to Mean Something.

Every time the stageing, or the blocking, or the emoting pulled my attention from those very intriguing people and their interactions, My Inner Critic felt forced Out of the action, and he blamed that on the director. The worst of these times came when the peripatetic seats and the long exits emphasized the wide, flat Loeb stage. My Critic thinks Szasz, though he has done a lot of plays and has worked for years with A.R.T., is still a Movie director who has never come to terms with the possibilities nor the difficulties presented by this playing-space. He'd rather shove a spotlight into some actor's hands and make close-ups with it.

But, de gustibus, you Liked the show --- and that's great! I myself don't always have to Agree with that Inner Critic of mine, so you don't either. I do ask people who see the same show I do, "does the review show you the same play we saw?" I mean, opinion aside, did I describe things that happened Accurately? Send me an answer to that one question, will you?

You know, I'm really sorry you didn't see the Boston Art Theatre's "Uncle Vanya" which ran at The BCA till a week ago. It had to be "no-frills" theater, in a teacup, so the emphasis had to be not on set but on people. I often wish the American Repertory Theatre could do the same. Often, in this "Seagull," they did just that.

Love,
===Anon.
( a k a larry stark )

"The Seagull" (8 January - 1 February)
THE AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATRE
64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE, MA
1 (617) 547-8300

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