Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Seagull"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


"THE SEAGULL"

by Anton Chekhov; adapted by Robert Brustein

directed by Dawn Davis

Medvedenko, a teacher … Phillip Salazar
Masha, Shamrayev’s daughter … Amy B. Corral
Sorin, Arkadina’s brother … Edwin Beschler
Treplev, Arkadina’s son … Adam T. Rosencrance
Nina, daughter of a neighbor … Irina Salimov
Polina, Shamrayev’s wife … Bonnie-Jean Wilbur
Dorn, a doctor … Floyd Richardson
Arkadina, an actress … Anna Smulowitz
Trigorin, a writer … Phillip Atkins
Shamrayev, Sorin’s estate manager … Doug Hodes

Scratch a good director and you shouldn’t find anything: he/she can vanish inside a script and come out with a production where it’s the playwright who sings and their own contributions are accents, not underscoring, like a wine that evaporates in cooking, leaving only its essence. Scratch a bad director and you’ll find the classic bore at a party, who has little to say but says it loud --- and often. I’ll hazard a guess that frustration is the bad director’s muse: whether he/she has failed as actor or playwright and now wreaks revenge on other actors and playwrights or is simply a Hitler demanding to be heard, who can say? --- but I’ve seen some appalling directorial rapes lately, and there oughta be a law, you know? The latest victim was Anton Chekhov’s THE SEAGULL, shot down by Dawn Davis; her production first toured New York and Newburyport, then came home to die at the ICA.

(Actually, labeling a director as “bad” IS a bit harsh; it’s like saying he/she should have been drowned at birth --- though there ARE directors who should be taken to the river periodically and have it pointed out to them….)

On paper, Ms. Davis’ concept sounded intriguing: to remove Chekhov’s tragicomedy of quiet, frustrated lives from its realistic setting, place it on a totally bare stage (plus a few chairs) and focus on the interactions of Arkadina, Trigorin, Treplev, Nina & Co. --- the only problem is, Ms. Davis also stripped the characters themselves of reality and had her actors play the subtext; thus, non-stop movement counterpointed the dialogue, a gimmick that quickly grew stale --- for example, an actor doubled over, back of hand pressed to forehead, then slumped to the floor and rolled about to indicate that her character was unhappy --- nor did the gimmick probe too deeply, thank God: if it did, Treplev would mount his mother; Masha would castrate her husband; the debased Nina would beg to be sodomized, etc. I cannot believe these warm-up exercises were the fruits of six months’ preparation and four months’ rehearsal --- Deconstruction has finally begun to deconstruct.

In her lengthy program notes, this SEAGULL is Ms. Davis’ reaction to “our belief that American theatre in particular has stagnated due to a failure to utilize all of that which theatre is capable. … Chekhov wrote for and ahead of his time, but it is necessary for a change in the way his work is preserved in order for it to remain accessible and relevant to a society in flux.” Well, after seeing two other revised clinkers this season --- OUR TOWN (Boston Theatre Works) and THE VISIT (Northeastern University) --- I say, when a director feels compelled to make a time-tested play “accessible and relevant”, he/she (1) either lacks the ability/humility to present it in the style/convention as written or (2) is implying, “I’M the one who doesn’t ‘get’ this play; therefore, I need to interpret it in order for ME to understand.” (To re-quote the one good line in IT’S ALL TRUE, “Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t give you the right to cut it!”) I am not such a purist that I cannot bear to see a production unless I know every farthingale is securely in place; this SEAGULL proves you can do Chekhov without sets and costumes --- but to shove aside the soul of a play for a gimmick is folly.

And Ms. Davis’ actors looked unhappy, too (you need trained dancers for this sort of nonsense); they winged it sans style or a sense of ensemble --- Trigorin was a Central Park mime, complete with beret; Nina, a mistress of sign-language; Masha, a Sally Bowles by way of Isadora Duncan; Treplev did his calisthenics while Dorn slowly fell through time and space, etc. --- what play was I watching: MARAT/SADE? Ironically, the actors were far more compelling when they simply stopped and let Mr. Chekhov take a crack at things; then, as if shamefully reminded, they resumed their hopping, twitching and fluttering. As a director, Ms. Dawn committed the gravest sin towards her actors: she made them look bad; foolish. With one exception, I could not tell if any of them were even good --- the only insights I gleaned were their boredom or embarrassment.

That one exception was Edwin Beschler in the supporting role of Sorin. Mr. Beschler continues to play the Benevolent Old Man; he has yet to meet a director who can coax him into variations of his persona --- that he doesn’t come off as monotonous is a tribute to his gentle radiance when he is on a stage. By keeping his movements to a minimum and concentrating on his character, Mr. Beschler was truly Chekhovian and in turn pointed up the hollowness of Ms. Davis’ vision. Mr. Beschler and Anna Smulowitz, the Arkadina, shared the one moment where character and exploratory movement did come together: while Sorin and Arkadina were discussing her son, they waltzed together to a sweet, nostalgic tune --- the waltz symbolized their sibling affection and that they came from an older, statelier generation.

Robert Brustein contributed a smooth, flowing adaptation and it was played sans intermission --- a wise decision on Ms. Davis’ part.

"The Seagull" (27 February-2 March)
LIBERATION! FILMS
INSTITUTE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART THEARE (ICA), 955 Boylston Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 470-1873

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