Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Seagull"

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note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark

"The Seagull

by Anton Chekhov
Translated by Paul Schmidt
Directed by Rachel R. Shatil

Set Design by Janie E. Howland (nee Fliegel)
Lighting Design by Mark Klureza
Costume Design by Jana Howland
Music by Philip Kaplan
Production Director Oded Susskind
Stage Manager Seth Wachtell

Boris Alexeyevich TRIGORIN........................Stephen Collins
NINA Mikhailovna Zarechnaya.......................Iskra Anguilova
Irina Nikolayevna ARKADINA.............................Jane Lukoff
KONSTANTIN Gavrilovich Treplev................Joseph Johnson
Yevgeny Sergeyevich DORN........................Mark Van Savage
PAULINA Andreyevna.........................................Linda Goetz
MASHA................................................................Sarah Jones
Pyotr Nikolaveyvich SORIN...............................Richard Clark
Semyon Senyonovich MEDVEDENKO...........Douglas Rainey
ILYA Afansayevich Shamrayev................Anthony Dangerfield
YAKOV.............................................................Seth Wachtell

This will probably be a lengthy and detailed review., because Chekhov's long plays are long and heavily detailed, and they repay the thinking about. Also I've talked enough with the Portal Theatre's Director Rachel Shatil to know that this production was the result of months of serious work by all concerned, and that the play will probably remain "unfinished" in the eyes of its makers even on closing night. Every audience will give the company new insights and clues for improvements. So this is less a review than a jumble of notes about how I think the strengths of this production could be enhanced and other aspects improved. Consider it one side of a dialog with the show and its makers.

To begin, I have ranked the cast not in order of appearance, but roughly as to the success I feel they've had in bringing these characters alive --- admitting that all have moments of excellence as well as occasional failings. In general, characters failed whenever people seemed to be acting the role, instead of being the character --- and this happened more often than not when things were expected to be funny. Whenever people externalized their actions they seemed exaggerated, as though the actor were pushing too hard, pretending to be rather than being.

For me the most successful pair were Stephen Collins and Iskra Angeulova. He plays a famous writer who insists that instead of living he is condemned to observe life as nothing but raw material for possible stories or plays which, once the fever of writing and re-writing is over, leave him cold. She, on the other hand, envies his life as someone famous and resolves to act her way to stardom in order to taste the joys of fame. Collins is always quiet, yet glacially alert --- reserved, aloof, mildly disparaging of his achievements and his talents. Angeulova's Nina is almost bouncily eager to burst the shackles of a repressive home and fling herself into an artistic world she has, unfortunately, little native talent or practiced technique to conquer. Collins, the night I saw him, has yet to find much emotional sincerity in his pivotal second-act speech disparaging his "successful" life; while Angeulova had yet to find the distracted admission of her failures in act four.

If Collins' Trigorin is a cool, uninvolved observer, Konstantin --- twenty years his junior --- is a continual adolescent explosion of passionate involvement. And Joseph Johnson certainly has the intensity this young advocate of "new forms" applies to everything from his expressionistic new play to his love of Nina, its star. Johnson seems old for the part --- not physically, but emotionally. Perhaps his Konstantin thinks too much, and protects himself too much. When his mother the famous actress belittles his admittedly silly script he seems unwilling to burst into the petulant tears of a pouting adolescent whining "Why can't you ever take me seriously!" There is little hint here of his Freudian attempt to upstage his mother's lover, though his emotional slavery to Mom comes through perfectly.

In my assessment of the production, Jane Lukoff represents an excellent swing of internal and external acting techniques. Her Arkadina is indeed an actress to the scarlet tips of her fingernails, used to playing the diva offstage, shamelessly manipulative, and occasionally so emotional she overplays her hand or bursts into tirades when her interlocutors refuse to play by her script. Her shriek-red backless gowns or microskirts deftly call attention away from the long rhinestone chokers masking her over-forty throat. She is excellent at being Arkadina --- both the sincere person, and the insincere actress.

There is, however, one glaring lapse into externality. In act one while Nina is laughably over-acting Konstantin's verbosely ultra-moderne play, Lukoff rasps her lacquered talons impatiently against the chair-back a few noisy times, and squirms about in her seat to glare again and again at the hovering playwright. In that instant, I didn't see a bored actress preparing to take focus from an admittedly laughable play; instead I saw Jane Lukoff signalling to the audience "Did you see those nervous fingernails just now? You know I'm impatient now, don't you?" Every gesture there pushed too hard, pointed to itself rather than flowing from the rest. And in the midst of moments and whole scenes where meaning was apparent from the interplay, these lapses into external posturing were even more jarring.

That posturing, and that pushing for comic effect, were most evident in the clowns: Richard Clark playing an old scarecrow flapping in the wind and Douglas Rainey as the doormat everyone wipes their feet on. I don't think I've ever seen these two played convincingly (though in his defense my companion that night called Rainey's the best played role in the show). Clark's Sorin is a boring, self-pitying old windbag with a bad leg and a cane --- an accurate description of yours truly, by the way. He whines that he's never really lived, whines that he still wants to live, even though at one point the doctor tells him a bit over-bluntly that he's old and dying and not worth wasting medicines on: "Take two aspirin and if you're still alive call me in the morning." He is monumentally unobservant, blundering blindly through scenes blathering non-sequiturs and, in this case, calling self-important attention to his exaggerated infirmities in the most glaring examples of external pointing in the play. And because of them, he is never a believable person. These exaggerations are obviously deliberate, worked out by actor and director, but for what effect I cannot fathom. Sorin is silly enough as a person; making him a clown adds nothing, and even makes him less easy to laugh at.

And if Clark is unreal, Rainey's Medvedenko is caricature. Admittedly, Chekhov means this poor village schoolmaster to be hilarious, both as a spat-upon lover, and later as a cuckolded husband. He of all the cast gets exactly what he wanted and is most unhappy with it. I suspect that the only way to make this thankless role work is to play him not as Bozo the punching-bag but as King Lear. He hovers at the edge of the action, but nonetheless he deserves his shot at human dignity.

Another peripheral character is Ilya the swaggering estate-manager. Anthony Dangerfield, in crisp tropics-fatigues with a holstered pistol at his belt, keeps him completely isolated from everyone else. His autocratic impertinence to those who employ him edges up to contempt --- barges past it in his treatment of his son-in-law Medvedenko. Boorish jokes about accidents in performance are his only connection with actress or playwright, so that guffaw or bluster are all he has to work with. Perhaps in Chekhov's turn-of-the-century Russia estate managers were universally understood (Uncle Vanya is one, remember) and thus this one could be seen then as a send-up. Today he is hardly integrated into the whole, and his comic-relief is hard to accomplish.

Again, while no one sees Chekhov as the laugh-riot Neil Simon of his day that he himself insisted he was, I heard not nearly enough laughter at this performance, neither at the gross posturing externalities nor at the subtler ironies. I mean, in the space of a few minutes in act one we have Medvedenko throwing himself at young Masha, who eventually replies that to her he is about as attractive as a toad. Whap! Then Masha flings herself at Konstantin, who doesn't even notice. Whap! Whap! And then Konstantin goes all a-quiver over Nina. Whap! Whap! Whap! And by the time Masha's mother Paulina launches herself into Doctor Dorn's arms insisting that old as they are he must take her away from Ilya her husband, and Dorn insists that though she might not be too old, he Is, this merry-go-round of bing-bing-bing unrequitable loves ought to be provoking snickers. Nina's hilarious gestures enacting Konstantin's ludicrous play should have had the polite audience rolling in the aisles it was so good, but it didn't. Again and again I found things funny, but hesitated to laugh alone. My feeling is that, put off by the clowns trying to act funny, the audience was prevented from seeing human ironies as laughable. It should be easier to laugh with people than at them.

I don't want to slight Linda Goertz, who had Paulina down perfectly, or Sarah Jones whose Masha hovered between self-destruction and shrew, or Mark Van Savage whose Dorn faded too often into background in larger scenes. They seemed not yet integrated into the play in such a way as to reflect different facets of the main action. But I do want to ask for more from Seth Wachtell as Yakov the silent servent. Wachtell stage-managed the Portal production, and as the show began he rather obviously played the stage-manager for Konstantin's play-within-the-play, cleaning up Janie Howland's very stage-set set; then he disappeared, surfacing late in the play as a tippling servant sneakily draining all the unfinished wine-glasses in another externalized joke. But between each of the first three acts in what are called "transitions" the cast re-sets all the furniture, and yet I never saw Wachtell, prompt-book in hand, overseeing and directing a stage-crew. And I feel that I should have. The initial emphasis on a set-within-a-set would then have been carried through the evening.

This grows much too long, and has become a litany of carping and complaints, but I don't mean to keep people from seeing the show for themselves and coming away with their own reactions. I thought it a creditable realization of a difficult play, and I will try to see its closing performance if possible. And by that I do NOT mean to imply that if Rachel Shatil and her company will only change their performances according to my specific recommendations it will blossom as perfect. Rather, I trust them to accept every audience as a working member of the company, to listen, and to adjust. Mine will not be the only suggestions for tinkering and tweaking, nor will they be taken as anything more than that: as suggestions. They expected to learn new things about the play during the run, and I would like to see what those new insights do to a show they expected would never be "frozen". The show you see will not be the one I saw. But then, it never is, is it?


"The Seagull" (till 24 October)
Works Theater, 255 Elm Street Davis Square, SOMERVILLE

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