by Lynn on March 13, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

The Seagull

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Upstairs. Written by Anton Chekhov. Adapted by Rena Polley. Directed by Peggy Coffey. Set by Rob Gray. Costumes by Joyce Gunhouse, Judy Cornish of Comrags. Lighting by Al Paquette. Sound and music design by Rob Bertola. Starring: Steve Coombes, Greg Ellwand, Patrick Garrow, Andrei Gilchrist, Lynne Griffin,  Llyandra Jones, Andrei Pedra, Rena Polley, Sean Sullivan, Nicole Wilson.

Produced by the Chekhov Collective and plays until March 23.

Anton Chekhov is one popular playwright. His plays are so layered and dense with emotions and attitudes. His characters are full bodied, emotionally charged and hilarious without their knowing it. Chekhov wrote his characters with affection and keen insight. No wonder actors love doing his plays.

Last month there was the exquisite production of Afterplay about two Chekhov characters, with the playwright wondering, what would happen if these two met years later?

This month we have The Seagull produced by the Chekhov Collective. The play is about love in all its guises, unrequited, misplaced, neurotic; and has the full array of Chekhov’s characters all of whom have their own kind of angst.

Konstantin is a young man in his twenties living in his mother’s shadow. She is Irina Arkadina, an actress. He reminds her that she is older than she is willing to admit.  Konstantin hates her kind of theatre and writes a new kind of play in what he thinks is a new genre. It is incomprehensible and Konstantin is wounded. We see the relationships played out instantly. Konstantin is in love with Nina, the innocent star of his play. The seagull is symbolic of her, or vice versa.  Nina likes Konstantin but soon meets and is smitten by Trigorin, a celebrated writer and lover of Arkadina. Trigorin contends with Arkadina but then takes up with Nina but gets bored easily and throws her over, after she becomes pregnant and has a child. Arkadina loves Trigorin but not as much as she loves herself. The school teacher, Medvedenko loves Masha who works on the estate, but Masha barely tolerates him. She is in love with Konstantin. To take her mind off thinking of Konstantin, Masha marries Medvedenko and ramps up her contempt for him. Masha’s parents are Polina and Shamrayev, he runs the estate. Polina in turn frets over and loves, Dr. Dorn. Arkadina’s sweet brother Sorin has compassion for everyone.

And so it goes. So much angst. So much mis-placed love; the search for art in oneself; the desperation to hold on to youth; dreams of better things vs. reality.  Such fretting about their lot in life. Such unhappiness. In Chekhov’s world this is initially hilarious, until of course the seriousness bubbles up.

The Chekhov Collective is a group of actors dedicated to exploring the play using the acting techniques of Michael Chekhov, Anton Chekhov’s nephew. Through workshops, readings, and careful study and interaction, the group worked on The Seagull for a year.

In a program note director, Peggy /Coffey expands a bit on the thinking of Michael Chekhov and how the actors explored the play. In the program and other references terms such as ‘architecture’ ‘expansion/contraction’, special relationships etc. are used to explain some of the reference points. Some media were even invited to attend special workshops that put Michael Chekhov’s techniques into practice.

Here’s the thing, I look on my job of theatre critic as a professional member of an audience. Certainly I would be familiar with the various terms and techniques of acting, method, naturalistic, intuitive,  Stanislavskian, stuff of the Actors’ Studio etc. But when reviewing a play, I don’t really care how an actor got to realize his/her character, as long as he/she did it. As long as all concerned: the director, actors, creative crew etc. realized the point and intention of the play. The ‘architecture’, ‘expansion/contraction’ might mean a lot to the actor, but the audience (me as critic too) doesn’t care. I care about how well the play was done. Yes, the play is the thing—that is why we are in the room.

I think the Chekhov Collective deserve a lot of credit for making their own work and luck. For many in the cast this is their first theatrical venture. For many others, more comfortable in television, this is an opportunity to do a part in which they might not usually be cast. So this group got together to put on a play and took a year to explore it before they thought it was ready. Bravo to that tenacity, even though the results are uneven.

Rob Gray’s simple set of slat work gives a feel of a sprawling estate that has seen better days. We do get that sense of Russian country in this simple work. The props are functional and are brought on and off by the cast doing double duty as cast and crew.

As Arkadina, Rena Polley has the bearing of a celebrated, self-absorbed woman who is easily riled and easily bored. As Trigorin, Patrick Garrow is always watchful, as a accomplished writer would be. You get the sense of his being quietly obsessive about noting a phrase of word for a future short story. And you get a sense of his cold heart when he talks of writing a short story about a man who, for want of nothing better to do, destroys a life. This is a reference to what will happen to Nina. Greg Ellwand brings a kind-hearted sweetness to Sorin. Sorin’s love for Konstantin is unconditional, and his interactions to all the characters is without edge or harshness. Similarly Lynne Griffin’s Polina frets and clucks around Dr. Dorn, whom she really loves, and stands silent and embarrassed when she is around Shamrayev, her husband. I found Steve Coombes as Shamrayev to be too quickly riled without the build to the emotional explosion.  As Dorn, Sean Sullivan accepts Polina’s affection and her attention with a quiet tenderness. As Medvedenko, Andrei Preda is oblivious to Masha’s unhappiness, but is still attentive to her. In Act II he is more commanding and shows Masha more gumption.

As Masha, Llyandra Jones has to say the two most difficult lines in the play at the very beginning. When Medvedenko asks her why she always wears black she says: “I’m in mourning for my life. I’m unhappy.” On first hearing, that overly dramatic utterance is funny. We do learn later how true the last line is. Why are those two lines the most difficult? Because the actress saying them has to dig deep to express the unhappiness, perhaps the flippancy of the character in the first line, and the truth in the second. Ms Jones just said them without inflection, nuance, or a sense they were deeply thought. She is a young actress; perhaps with more experience and deeper understanding she will be able to dig deeper into Masha. As Nina, Nicole Wilson has a sweet innocence initially but as the play went on, she too lacked depth in her performance. Riley Gilchrist certainly has Konstantin’s brooding established; and one gets the sense of Konstantin’s despair at how his writing is doing and his disappointment at losing Nina. But I find that his tears in the last scene is a bit of overkill. I can appreciate that Konstantin tearing up his writing at the end would signify something drastic, but why director, Peggy Coffey has him put bits of the torn writing in his pockets is mystifying.

I also get the sense that Ms Coffey, an actress in her own right, is fresh to exploring directing. I would have thought that with the time the company took to explore character the director would have led some actors to deeper performances that just skimming the surface.

Too often a character who is talking to another character gives his/her lines looking out to the audience and not to the character to whom they are talking. That interrupts any connection characters have to each other. I can appreciate that Coffey wants to establish some kind of mood at the very beginning by playing the melody of a song sung by Oh Susanna. The voice is smoky and distinctive. But keeping the audience in the dark while the whole melodic line is sung, and it goes on for several seconds, does the opposite. It makes the audience impatient for the play to begin. If we don’t know the song or the melody, then how can we expect to understand the mood Coffee is trying to create?

I hope the cast had a fruitful experience exploring the play. Next time I hope the result is more cohesive in serving the play and the audience.

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