nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 14, 2005
Here is a Seagull full of surface passions. Its most vivid presence is Masha, the preternaturally unhappy girl who is the first character we meet—asked why she always dresses in black, she replies "I'm in mourning for my life." She's the daughter of Shamrayev, the upwardly mobile petty tyrant who is manager of a country Russian estate owned by Sorin (Shamrayev is gradually wresting control of the land, and the assets, from his boss, who, by the end of the play, is dying). Masha is in love—grandly and unrequitedly—with Konstantin, Sorin's nephew, who lives on the estate with his uncle. Here he broods about how his mother, the famous actress Arkadina, ignores him; he also dabbles at creating a new kind of theatre (for which he shows only limited aptitude), and he has in fact written a bizarre play for Nina, the neighbor girl with whom he is head-over-heels in love. Nina wants to be an actress and, more important, to be famous. When Arkadina arrives at the estate for summer vacation with the popular novelist Trigorin in tow, Nina is enraptured: the great celebrity that Trigorin has is exactly what she thinks she wants.
Back to Masha: she is being pursued by the dull but earnest schoolteacher, Medvedenko. She can see that she's doomed to live the way her mother has, in a loveless marriage (Masha's mom, Paulina, married to the boor Shamrayev, is in love with the sophisticated doctor, Dorn). Adaptor/director Michael Barakiva puts Masha on stage even before the play starts, on a swing in the estate's backyard, telegraphing her boredom and anomie by alternately lolling about lazily and then pushing off and soaring with aggressive discontentedness. In chic black spectacles of the type now very much in style among young people, Kelly Hutchinson plays Masha with a boiling rage just beneath a veneer of cool (and hip) post-modern/goth aloofness that feels at least a century ahead of its time (the program puts the play in its origin period, 1895).
Elsewhere, Barakiva and his actors stress the big emotions as the various characters follow their hormones to push their lives/the story along. Shamrayev (David A. Green) flaunts his self-importance and his contempt for his so-called "betters" as he orders people about and flouts Arkadina and Sorin's commands. Arkadina (Barbara Garrick) literally throws herself at Trigorin when she suspects he's becoming infatuated with Nina, and she and Konstantin (David Barlow) snipe and parry like boxers in a ring. Barlow's Konstantin is manic and not a little wild-eyed; the psychological damage inflicted by Arkadina seems to be compounded by a chemical imbalance that was already rendering him unstable.
What's missing in all of this is the trivial detail, the ordinariness, the repetitive but comforting grind that we usually see in Chekhov's work. The relationships here are not deeply etched: I didn't feel the unqualified adoration of Shamrayev and Dorn for Arkadina, for example, that I've noted in other productions; or the unshakable familial bond between Arkadina, Sorin, and Konstantin; or the resigned hopeful/less-ness pervading Paulina and, later Masha's spirit. When the actors in this production aren't displaying grand passion they're generally withdrawing into themselves, magnifying little reveries of foolish self-indulgence into crass selfishness and turning brief moments of introspection into soliloquies; Curzon Dobell's Dorn and Saxon Palmer's Trigorin come off as so self-absorbed as to never connect with anyone at all. The result is a watchable and entertaining rendition of The Seagull, but one that sacrifices a good deal of the work's innate humanity and truth.
Linda Marie Larson (Paulina) and Garrett Neergaard (Medvedenko) turn in very affecting performances, and lots of Barakiva's staging ideas are arresting and interesting. (I particularly liked the idea of a slapstick finish to Act I.) Other choices are problematic, however: Oana Botez-Ban's costumes defy the play's setting and period and, in some cases, are downright peculiar (Konstantin and Trigorin wear brightly-colored striped shirts and socks, like carnival roustabouts or clowns). The set, designed by Mimi Lien—a view of the estate's garden and yard—is lovely and appropriate for the first half of the play, but in the second half, which takes place inside the house, it becomes confusing and cumbersome (why would a parlor's window curtain open from the outside?). And Barakiva needs to be more mindful of spatial relationships on the stage—he has Nina and Konstantin reciting away from their audience in the first act's play-within-a-play; and in the last act he has them use different routes to go in and out of the parlor—distractions that could easily have been avoided. As adaptor, Barakiva allows himself some indulgences that he probably should have resisted, such as having Trigorin make several unforgivable (and out-of-character) sexual puns and making Arakdina's catch-phrase "Que sera, sera."
The Seagull remains a strong and compelling play, and it's great to see all of these folks working hard to bring it off. The producing company, the Roundtable Ensemble, partner with a variety of organizations to provide subsidized or free tickets to their shows to people who don't ordinarily get to see theatre—this is certainly a terrific work with which to make such an introduction.