The Three Seagulls, or MASHAMASHAMASHA!
nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
March 1, 2012
The Three Seagulls, or MASHAMASHAMASHA! is GREAT! It is so refreshing to see Chekhov presented in a vibrant, fun manner and Theatre Reconstruction Ensemble’s production does a beautiful job of capturing the essence and intention, rather than the heaviness and nostalgia, of Chekhov.
The show begins with part of the Foreword to Paul Schmidt’s translations of Chekhov’s plays, which tells us that Chekhov never considered his plays tragedies (Stanislavsky called them that); he considered them comedies (except for Three Sisters, which Chekhov called a drama, not a tragedy). This very useful knowledge springboards us into 75 minutes of high-energy fun. Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus has created a lively mashup of The Seagull and The Three Sisters, merging the characters named Masha in both plays into one central, somewhat confused figure who can never really get a grasp on which character she’s in love with. A cast of 24 portray all of the characters from the two plays and, despite the co-mingling, we still get a strong sense of the two stories—the three sisters who long for Moscow (Olga the schoolteacher spinster, Irina the youngest who does not love her suitors and Masha, married, but in love with the soldier Vershinin) become intertwined in the world of the playwright Konstantin, his actress mother Arkadina, her lover Trigorin, Nina (the ingénue who leaves Konstantin for Trigorin) and Masha (who loves Konstantin).
The beauty of The Three Seagulls lies in the fact that everyone is talking and self-preoccupied, but they are only sort of listening to one another and the pacing is fast and frequently overlapping. Think of Thanksgiving with your family—everyone is chattering away and everyone’s a character and no one's being rude but they’re not sitting and speaking one at a time, listening raptly to every word that’s uttered. This is how Chekhov should be! And then, and this speaks to the brilliant work of Director John Kurzynowski, something subtle happens and our attention is fully grabbed and one of those beautiful lines emerges—when Irina tells us that she’s forgotten the Italian for “window,” for example, or Vershinin, before he dies in a duel, remembers that he didn’t have any coffee that morning. Because that’s the genius of Chekhov—the pain, the joy, the beauty, the love lies in the detail.
The ensemble works wonderfully together, finding moments of humor and synchronicity (a particular favorite moment of mine was when someone asks the Doctor something and both doctors, one from each play, responded in unison). Kurzynowski does a wonderful job making sure our attention is always directed where it should be—something this large and raucous could easily become pandemonium, yet it remains clear and crisp throughout, with lovely nuances (in one moment, one character was speaking, and then all of a sudden my eye was drawn to where Nina and Trigorin were first meeting and falling for one another—an excellent piece of subtle stagecraft). Particularly wonderful performances are given by Nathaniel Kent (as a rather emo Andrei), Leigh Jones (as a beautifully-voiced Irina), Merlin Whitehawk (as a lovably pompous Vershinin) and Kelly Rogers and Matt Carr, as Nina and Konstantin, respectively, who manage, amongst it all, to have an incredibly sincere, heartfelt moment that made one long to see them enact the play in its entirety.
Backhaus’s script uses much of Chekhov’s dialogue, yet she is unafraid to insert modern anachronisms. It was certainly very jarring at first when we see these characters mention Duane Reade, Hudson Street and credit cards, yet, after some getting used to, it served to put the dialogue in context. Everything Russian sounding from a century ago feels weighty and nostalgic; by putting in these anachronisms, Backhaus draws attention to the fact that a street is just a street, no matter how quaint it may sound to modern ears.
I will frankly admit that I am a huge Chekhov fan. In the lobby after the show, there were definitely a number of audience members confused by what they had just witnessed. But for someone knowledgeable of the Russian master or a theatergoer with an open mind, then I cannot say enough what a delight is to be had watching The Three Seagulls, or MASHAMASHAMASHA!.