Entertainment » Theatre

The Seagull

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Jan 15, 2009
Mickey Solis and Molly Ward star in ’The Seagull,’ now at the A.R.T. through Feb. 1
Mickey Solis and Molly Ward star in ’The Seagull,’ now at the A.R.T. through Feb. 1  (Source:A.R.T. / Michael Lutch)

The past half-year had marked a good stretch for Anton Chekhov in the Boston theater scene: last summer brought us Diego Arciniegas translating and directing "The Seagull" for The Publick Theatre, and even now "The Cherry Orchard" is playing at the Central Square Theatre.

The American Repertory Theatre now chimes in with its own production of The Seagull, in which director Janos Szasz mixes an updated look with a traditional background: literally; huge panels made to look like heavy cracked-plaster walls hover over the stage, bearing Russian Orthodox iconography.

That's in keeping with Szasz's vision of Nina (and, to various extents, the other characters) as not just the metaphorical seagull of the title--a free-spirited being sighted in graceful flight and then brought to ruin out of boredom--but also as a tragic, angelic figure.

Szasz doesn't spare the characters from Chekhov's sometimes disdainful prod: they are still spoiled, still mired in their own sense of tedium, still given to petulance and outbursts. But when the creations of the play look at one another with love, tender sentiment transforms the girlish Nina into a celestial vision, or worn-out, ailing Pyotr into a man on the verge of donning his wings and entering Heaven, or frustrated young writer Konstantin into a rebel angel full of fire and spite (and, on a couple of occasions, ear-splitting punk music).

The story, like much of Chekhov, is one of a wealthy family struggling with generational, social, and financial issues. Konstantin (Mickey Solis) burns to be a writer, and burns with passion for Nina (Molly Ward), who lives with her parents on the adjoining country estate.

Nina, however, after a spell of youthful enchantment with Konstantin, transfers her crush onto Trigorin (Brian Dykstra), a successful writer who his having an affair with Konstantin's mother, Irina (Karen MacDonald), a famous actress.

Irina is 42, and jealous of her 25-year-old son's youth, which accounts for her age-inappropriate (and trampish) attire (thank costumer David Zinn for Irina's note-perfect getups, as well as those of all the rest of the ensemble).

Konstantin, meantime, resents his mother's ego and feels belittled by her. He also takes it as a personal affront that his mother has taken up with a well-known and admired writer, when his own career has yet to take off.

Konstantin's jealousy and rage are only heightened by Nina's sudden adoration of Trigorin, which makes him act cruelly toward Masha (Nina Kassa), a depressed young woman (and a Goth in this production) who turns to vodka for solace and to ardent suitor Semyon (Shawn Cody) for relief from her unrequited love for Konstantin.

The adults of the piece aren't much better. They have been through the turmoil of youth themselves, but not emerged with any particular wisdom as a result. Dr. Dorn (a bald-headed Thomas Derrah), a frequent guest at the estate, not only laughs at the antics around him, he mocks them, reciting the over-heated lines of various over-wrought characters along with them but not offering much that is curative in the way of soothing advice. Then again, the good doctor is still a player, though he's in his mid-60s: he and Masha's mother Paulina (Cheryl D. Singleton) are having an affair.

Masha's father, Ilya (a bearded Remo Airaldi), the estate's manager, may be a servant, but he plays up his importance by denying his employer, Irina's brother Pyotr (Jeremy Geidt, wonderfully stodgy), the use of his own horses.

The characters careen off of one another in a Chekhovian blend of comedy and fatalism, and the perpetual sense of theatricality in their interactions is underscored by the continual use of rows of theater seats, which the cast use early on as Konstantin puts on a play that simultaneously demonstrates Konstantin's struggle as a writer looking for "new forms" and Nina's limitations as an actress (when she runs off to Moscow to make a name for herself on stage, she fails to impress).

Those same seats dominate Riccardo Hernandez's set design for entire play; since they are mounted on wheels, they allow the characters and the action to swivel or shift about, changing our perspective as though we are watching a film. It's a clever trick, and it works much better than certain other innovations, such as the puddles of water on the stage that stand in for the "magic lake" that seems to promote both the romanticism and the moroseness of the characters. A deluge in Act Two adds to the "lake" through which everyone is obliged to slosh.

Paul Schmidt's translation of the play is conversant and accessible, adapting a vernacular English that suits the contemporary presentation. When the actors are not growling, groping (at one point nearly raping), and screaming at one another, the translation, and the acting, offer nuanced glimpses into their souls.

Indeed, the sense of spiritual struggle comes through in this production, though it is often sidetracked by odd frills (the tune to the Warner Brothers' "Looney Tunes" shorts, which plays while a character in a Porky Pig mask races by, is cute but jarring). The music, by sound designer David Remedios, is dominated by a mysterious, sometimes jazzy score that works a treat when it syncs up with the mood of the acting and dialogue, but which is out of place at certain junctures: there are times when the characters are romantic, anxious, or frolicsome, and the music, rather than reflecting the change of emotional tone, remains mysterious and moody.

Christopher Akerlind's lighting, which is clever about using spotlights and other effects, has one strange enhancement: Konstantin keeps circling the edges of the stage during moments when his character is supposedly absent, pointing a flashlight at various characters. It may be that this represents his hyper-sensitive receptivity to the criticism he feels is rained upon him from all sides; it comes over more as the evil eye of Sauron, however.

One striking, and highly effective, innovation involves a different take on the play's beginning and ending, which I won't spoil, but which gives the piece a different slant. Of all the tweaks and riffs Szasz has come up with for this production, the bookend-style start and finish freshens this classic play most successfully.

’The Seagull’ runs through Feb. 1 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Harvard Square, in Cambridge.

Performance Schedule: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 and 7:30 p.m. Please note: there will be no 7:30 p.m. performance on Sunday, Feb. 1; there will be an additional 10:00 a.m. performance on Thursday, Jan. 29.

Tickets cost $25-79; student rush tickets cost $15; seniors receive a $10 off discount. Group rates also available. Tickets can be obtained online at www.amrep.org or via phone at 617-547-8300.

More information is online at www.amrep.org, including dates for pre- and post-play discussions.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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