by Lynn on April 21, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person, produced by Soulpepper, at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont. Playing until May 7, 2023.

By Anton Chekhov

Adapted in a new version by Simon Stephens

Directed by Daniel Brooks

Set by Shannon Lea Doyle

Costumes by Snezana Pesic

Lighting by Jason Hand

Sound and composer, Thomas Ryder Payne

Raoul Bhaneja

Oliver Dennis

Ellie Ellwand

Farhang Ghajar

Hailey Gillis

Randy Hughson

Diego Matamoros

Michelle Monteith

Dan Mousseau

Paulo Santalucia

Robyn Stevan

Chekhov’s ache of a play about unrequited love and acceptance is given a cold production by Daniel Brooks that didn’t realize that ache.

The Story. We are on Peter Sorin’s estate. His actress sister Irina has come for a visit with her lover, Boris, a celebrated writer. Irina’s grown son, Konstantin has written a play that will be performed that night in front of the lake and the rising moon. It will star his girlfriend, Nina. Konstantin is nervous because of course his play is being performed in front of his judgmental mother and her celebrated lover. It’s a new kind of play, unlike his mother’s stodgy populist fare. Other guests will attend. The Seagull is a play of unrequited love—many there pine for someone who does not return the affection—obsessions, writing, art and the comedic goings on of those who are melancholy and full of longing. It’s about life and its quirks as only Chekhov can write them, translated and transported to the 21st century by Simon Stephens.

The Production.  This production has been a long time coming. It was all ready to begin performances in 2020 when COVID shut it down. I am always glad to see work of talented, tenacious people. I just wish this production moved me more than it did.

Shannon Lea Doyle’s set is very spare. There are perhaps two chairs, a small rudimentary stage with a red curtain upstage, representing the small stage on which Konstantin’s play will be performed. Behind that, the width of the stage, is a sheet of opaque plastic. Jacob (a very easy-going, laid-back Dan Mousseau), a servant on the estate, sticks a sign on the sheet. It says “Lake”. Simple.

The members of the estate, the friends of the family and the hangers on arrive for the performance. Each has his/her foibles, idiosyncrasies, sadness and yearning. Masha (Ellie Ellwand) is not ‘in mourning for (her) life’ in Simon Stephens’ version of Chekhov’s play, but she’s pretty unhappy on two fronts. She’s in love with Konstantin (Paolo Santalucia) but he’s not in love with her. She is being pursued by Simeon (Farhang Ghajar) a meek man, a teacher, who tries to playdown her sadness compared with his own challenges of supporting his family etc. This adds more depression and weariness for Masha. Ellie Ellwand nicely establishes Masha’s weariness at these disappointments—she is listless and exasperated.

I found Paolo Santalucia’s performance as Konstantin strangely odd—this is a fine actor, but here he seemed, “strangely odd.” He is calm and composed for much of the first scene but when he must be agitated, it’s as if that kicks in. Every thing about Konstantin’s first scene should agitate him. He’s nervous about his play; he’s nervous about his mother and her lover being there and what she might think—he wants to please her but that might be a challenge. He’s nervous that his girlfriend, Nina, is the lead in his play and frets for her. And he knows his mother will be a challenge as a result. When he is talking to his kind uncle Sorin, who is trying to give Konstantin support, Konstantin sits quietly. I found that strange. This is a man who gives in to his emotions. He is frustrated in his life, position, aspirations and place in the world. Sitting quietly just seems wrong for that first scene, certainly since the dialogue suggest otherwise.

We are told by Konstantin that his actress-mother Irina (Michelle Monteith) resents him because it reminds her how old she is with a grown son. The problem is that Michelle Monteith actually looks (is?) too young for the part. I have no problem believing she is an actress, because she is an actress! But she does not look old enough to have a son as played by Paolo Santalucia. She does express Irina’s irritation with Konstantin and his play, when she talks during the performance about one of the smoke effects, and she conveys Irina’s petulance and narcissism nicely. Here is a woman used to being the center of attention and does not want to share that limelight.

She has to share the spotlight with Nina, giddy and joyful as played by Hailey Gillis.

Raoul Bhaneja plays Boris the writer, with an air of distraction rather than watchfulness. He does make notes of observations but that’s a stage direction—it’s the sense of distraction rather than the careful watchfulness that suggested a kind of distance from the whole play. It proved a disconnect with his compelling speech about the obsessive need to write. Again, Bhaneja is a fine actor, as are they all, but there is a coolness to this performance that is not engaging.

Too often performances played “at” or “around” the emotion: the bumbling but kindly uncle; the constantly irritated estate manager, the wise doctor-friend of the family having a fling with an unhappily married woman, who seems almost too cheerful.

Director Daniel Brooks has flair with images, but the production lacked the heart-ache and ground-down despair that is rooted in the play.


Soulpepper Theatre Company presents:

Plays until May 7, 2023

Running Time: 3 hours (1 intermission)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 David Schatzy May 3, 2023 at 7:09 am

I hope I’m not repeating myself, but I saw this again, because to me it is a letter-perfect production. The choice to be theatrical, ironic, detached, observing, mocking, absurd, over-the-top was inspired and totally engaging, with brilliant controlled acting in every role. The serious un=seriousness is to be taken very seriously. It is not a classical CHEKHOV production but a 21st century Chekhov interpretation, which I believe Chekhov himself, were he alive now, would applaud. I’m sorry you were disappointed because I was surprised and delighted by it – and fully engaged even if not emotionally shaken or moved, which in this production, was, I think, the whole point. This was a play about theatre, and what fools these mortals be. As Beckett says, “There is nothing funnier than unhappiness”.


2 Lynn May 3, 2023 at 6:53 pm

Always lovely to hear from you David, even when we disagree. Glad you saw it again and loved it. Hope you are well.
Always, Lynn