The act opens on a small stage built against the background of Arcadian beauty, thick woods and a lake glistening with the waning light of sunset. Másha, and Medviedenko, returning from a walk, enter.
Why do you always wear black?
I’m in mourning for my life, I’m unhappy.
So begins Anton Chekhov’s tale of disappointed love, betrayal, artistic hypocrisy and creative miscarriage, incestuous discord, decrepitude and death that the author entitled, “The Seagull – a comedy”.
The piece is an assemblage of what is not seen nor said on the stage. The abandonment, seduction, shooting and suicide are all committed politely out of sight of the audience, while the festering issues, cloaked under every word spoken, are daintily sidestepped by the dramatis personae.
I don’t know if it’s due to their history, their weather or some additional chromosome in their genetic makeup but the Russians have proven themselves suffering’s greatest aficionados, defining variations of it in ways undreamt of by other nationalities. I mean, who but the Russians come up with a word like “Razbliuto”; the dull pain one feels seeing a person they once loved but do no longer?
Now I’ve always held the relationship of the brooding, boozy Másha, and Medviedenko, the lowly school teacher so infatuated and ill-treated by her as the key to Chekhov’s ”The Seagull”, much as the drunken Sly and the Lord’s prank is to Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew”. If you’re wondering, “What drunken Sly scene?” don’t fret; this may be an indication of the onset of Alzheimer’s. The first two scenes comprising this entr’acte bouffe are always cut from productions even through the whole romance of Katherina and Petruchio is in fact a play within a play presented for the duped Sly which serves to frame the play’s dramatic statement.
Másha and Medviedenko function as the most defined representatives of the play’s motif, which afflicts all the primary characters, to a greater or lesser degree: that we woo our misery and wed ourselves to it.
When it comes to staging the classics, The Antaeus Company is a powerhouse. Director Andrew J. Traister demonstrates a confident and deft touch in his handling of the material whose demands are daunting. The skillful translation by Paul Schmidt has trimmed some of the top-heavy dialogue and in doing so has served to reveal the crystalline core of the characters and drama beneath it allowing for a sharper reflection with modern sensibilities. Lechetti Design, A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes, and Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting contributing to making an excellent production more so.
If you’ve never experienced Chekhov on stage, you could find no better introduction to one of the theater’s greatest voices than this production, for Traister and Schmidt have not placed on stage a museum piece, but a great drama full of immediacy and relevancy for any audience.
Antonio Jaramillo struck me as a bit too old for the role of the idealistic and impassioned Tréplev. His age and a tendency to shrillness shaded his performance as more poser than prodigy. Perhaps this was a directional choice with that objective in mind, if so then a firmer expression of the poser persona was needed.
As Arkádina, Tréplev’s vain and self-obsessed mother, an accomplished and revered star of the Moscow’s theater, Laura Wernette brings a sincere insincerity to her performance filling her character’s role with a resonance that rings true while making it quite recognizable. Arkádina dresses better than Madonna and displays a greater refinement, but surround them both with jostling paparazzi and they would be interchangeable.
Michael McShane plays Arkádina’s brother Sórin, who she has come to visit as well as her son who lives with him on the country estate which for all its rustic beauty Sórin feels a prisoner of. McShane brings a befuddled humanity and gentleness to his performance that captures the audience’s sympathy straight away. Bo Foxworth excels as Trigórin, Arkádina’s lover and a much heralded writer who is as dumbfounded by his critical acclaim as the envious young Tréplev. Foxworth conveys the hollowness of a man disconnected from himself and life, less a writer than an assembly line incapable of either creating or destroying passionately – a man who chooses not living but existing, mere flotsam in his own life; not on his own path, but flowing in the currents of others.
As Nína, the young girl beloved by Tréplev, Abby Wilde satisfies all the demands of a most demanding role with splendid aplomb. Bedazzled by what she perceives as the glamorous life lived by Arkádina, she impetuously runs off with Trigórin to Moscow to become an “actress”. She is the “seagull” of the play, who learns as Icarus did, there is always a price to pay for the heights we obtain.
Wilde is perhaps a tad old for the role too. Nína and Tréplev should be so young as to stand in contrast to the others about them. It is a recurring theme with Chekhov how the old “infirms” the young, smothering youthful aspirational hopes beneath the weight of their stagnation. “The Seagull” seems to be Chekhov’s cautionary tale to the young that “Guns don’t kill people, parents do.” Bill Brochtrup gives a good turn to Medviedenko, the much abused teacher whose devotion to Másha is not unlike that of a moth’s to a flame. Joanna Strapp deserves great praise for her intelligent and finely sculpted portrayal of Másha, the estate’s steward’s daughter, who is in love with Tréplev but is undone by her awareness of their different “stations.”
In a fashion, The Seagull can be viewed as a “play within a play” for Másha and Medviedenko, who are by blood and class both outsiders. They open the play by coming upon the stage built for the performance of Tréplev’s play, and in the closing act Medviedenko comments on its ruined remains still standing in the night, “naked and ugly like a skeleton.”
Early on in the play a brief and almost unnoticed exchange between the family’s friend Doctor Dorn (a solid Kurtwood Smith) and Nina’s mother Paulína (Dawn Didawick) points to a long past tryst which held out to them the hope of a happiness not grasped. This short encounter reveals that what we are to be shown – poor souls orchestrating their own suffering – has been with us before the play’s beginning, while the unhappy marriage and shunned child of Másha and Medviedenko attests it will continue long after the final curtain falls.
Chekhov understood as few writers could what a perverse breed humans are, and that it is probably for the best, as the story goes, that we had our butts kicked out of paradise as we would have likely ended up hating it anyways. What makes “The Seagull” so tragic is how very human all the characters are, and perhaps for Chekhov that was where the comedy lay.
THE ANTAEUS COMPANY@ The Deaf West Theatre
5112 Lankershim Blvd.
North Hollywood CA 91601 (one block south of Magnolia; free parking available in Citibank lot on Lankershim Blvd. South of Otsego St.) (818) 506-1983 www.antaeus.org