An easy substitution for real creativity is to take a classic drama and put it in some unusual setting, too often a contemporary setting, or to just steal the story in order to write an "original" drama without having to create too much that's actually original.
Seattle playwright Wayne S. Rawley is aiming for something much higher than that with his adaptation of Chekhov's "The Seagull". Transferring the story from 19th Century Russia to contemporary California, from landed gentry to privileged urbanites, and from a precious, fading civility to a debased, crude vulgarity, he's trying to say something about our own time and culture, while retaining the universality of Chekhov's insight and compassion for human relations. He also successfully restores the ironic comedy that has been lost in far too many reverential, historically correct productions of the great playwright. The result is a fascinating look at what Chekhov wanted to say, without the usual, slavish devotion to what he wrote.
Rawley has directed a hard-working cast into a compelling, often fascinating, transfiguration. As in the original, most everyone in this play seems to be in love with someone else in the play, who isn't in love with them. Where Chekhov tends to wrap that in an air of immaterial romance, Rawley gives it the cold edge of an unanswered personal ad. When the love is not an impossible desire for someone else, it's generally an unsatisfying devotion to self. Art, which is central to their expressed passion, becomes either a commercial commodity, an ego marker, or a pointless exercise. The need to express their true needs and desires is beyond their ability and their integrity. Like the dead seagull itself, they are aware that there is a meaning here that is greater than their understanding, but all they can clearly identify is an absurd, dead bird.
Chris Johnson has passion as the young playwright, Conrad, although at times it is conveyed with more volume than depth. When his play, "Society's Ass", which he has written for a young actress he's in love with, fails miserably in a backyard production, we feel the extent of his misery and the burden of his "famous" mother. We see his desire not to write something good, but to create something immortal, something that says all there is to say about everything so brilliantly that no one could ever fully understand it. Now we're in comedy. Betsy Morris plays the young actress with stars in her eyes, and has plenty of her own radiance to pull it off. She's beautiful and vulnerable, and as the world takes its toll on her, we feel every disillusionment, every compromise, every defeat.
Conrad becomes very interesting in the second act, when his disastrous first play becomes a great hit, and he finds himself the same kind of icon of success without achievement as his mother (Frances Hearn), a barely-was actress who is now in a sustained decline. Moral and ethical compromises are the calling cards for Barry A. Trigger (Philip D. Clarke), a very successful tv producer whom no one in this play respects and most of them envy. Jim Winkler makes the most of a cantankerous old man who can't get three words out without one of them being the f-word. I also liked Laurie Jerger Johnson as a goth-girl whose self-indulgent nihilism may be the funniest role in the play, and Brandon Whitehead as a slacker who still lives with his mother and needs a ride home.
Like Chekhov, this production can get a bit long-winded and sometimes drags a bit, but also like the original, it is filled with characters both recognizable and distinctive, with relationships very close to home, and with a deep compassion for the difficulty of finding our way through life's unmarked terrain. For all its inventive treatment of the play, there's very little here that feels gimmicky. Chekhov needs to be taken down and dusted off now and again, and in this production he's power-washed and amplified, drugged, tarted, taken to the street and packaged for mass-consumption. But to Mr. Rawley and the cast's credit, he's still Chekhov.
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