Running for one more weekend at the intimate Allen’s Lane Theatre in Chestnut Hill is Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece, The Seagull, written in 1895. This production employs a 1997 translation by Paul Schmidt. In 1896 the premiere of this play was deemed a failure. But when Konstantin Stanislavski directed it in 1898 for his Moscow Art Theatre, the production was called "one of the greatest events in the history of Russian theatre and one of the greatest new developments in the history of world drama.” Unlike the melodramas of the day, Chekhov’s naturalistic characters spoke in realistic dialogue and intimated more than they said. In short, he was way ahead of his time.
The play, which demands a large ensemble cast, (ten in this version, thirteen in the original) centers on the young ingénue, Nina and Constantine, a budding playwright who is in love with her. Constantine’s mother, Irina Arkadina, a fading actress, comes to her brother Sorin’s country estate by the lake (where Constantine lives) for a summer holiday. She is accompanied by her current lover, Boris Trigorin, a mediocre novelist of some celebrity. There they are entertained by a performance of one of Constantine’s poetic/symbolic plays. Nina is the leading lady and it is here that Trigorin first lays eyes on her and seals her fate.
In the current American theater scene, very few companies dare to tackle the classics. This is sad for American audiences, but one can understand why. They aren’t easy. So a theater should be commended for being ambitious enough to take on a Chekhovian masterpiece. That being said – what makes a Chekhov play work is its ensemble acting. Unfortunately, there are only three actors in this production who understand their characters, make choices that make sense and have an arc that they follow throughout the play. The rest of the cast seem to be at sea.
As an audience member I was confused. When the play opens we hear music of the 70’s -- Judy Collins, Janice Joplin and Fleetwood Mac. Then we see people on stage in a hodgepodge of different clothing styles. From what they were wearing, I couldn’t tell if the action was supposed to take place in the present or in the 1980’s. If so, why the 70’s music? And I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be summer or not. It said so in the program and at times characters exclaimed that it was hot. But why then was Constantine wearing shorts and a sport jacket at the same time? Was he hot or cold? The only place I’ve ever seen a man wearing such a get up was in Bermuda. But at least they wear white linen so you know you’re in a hot locale.
Adam Darrow is very appealing as the sensitive Constantine, a young man who cannot seem to win the love of neither the young Nina nor his narcissistic mother, Irina. Particularly heartbreaking is the scene where he asks his mother to change his head bandage for him and he reverts to being a child in her care, basking in her love for a moment. Hilary Kayle Crist is dramatic and manipulative as the selfish, self-serving Arkadina, while still wearing the façade of the loving mater. And her seduction scene with Trigorin would have been terrific if the actor playing opposite her had responded in the least way to her kisses and caresses. Asaki Kuruma has a great inner life going on as the lovelorn Masha who carries a torch for the unknowing Constantine. Her tortured drinking scene is quite moving, though after that many shots of Vodka, one feels she should have been a little more tipsy.
The trouble with “old chestnuts” is that we know them so well. And being so familiar with this play, I felt that there were times the direction seemed to be diametrically opposed to the author’s original intentions. In the opening scene, why does Nina scream out the words of Constantine’s flowery, poetic play? Though there is no action in his novice work, there is a naïve beauty to the young writer’s imagery and haunting words and Nina senses it. That is one of the reasons why Trigorin is drawn to her. It’s not only because she’s young and pretty, but more importantly because she’s innocent, artless and most of all vulnerable. Trigorin sees her potential as an actress and a conquest. He knows Nina is someone he can manipulate, for Trigorin is a first class manipulator. And in their final meeting why does Constantine turn his back on Nina, the woman that he loves, while she recites the words of his first play? Wouldn’t Constantine, still so desperately in love with Nina, want to look at her and drink in her every word and move, especially since he begs her to stay? In these two examples, if these were choices that the actors made, then the director should have been there to help them make better choices. Choices that would better serve the character and by definition better serve the play.
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