Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Genuine Article: Chekhov's Seagull in Mill Valley

SLAVIC LANGUAGES LACK the definite article, as anyone with a Czech in the family can attest. So Libby Appel's version of Anton Chekhov's least-performed major play, now running at Marin Theatre, is called simply Seagull, promoting that bird from what's too easily little more than shtick to pervasive metaphor. It's clear in any case, of course, that Seagull stands for Konstantin Gavrilovich, the male lead; Kostya (as he's nicknamed) shoots the damned thing in the first act, then shoots himself in the last. (Oh. Spoiler. Sorry. I assumed you already knew.)

Seagull also stands for a force of Nature, like the lake brooding in the backdrop of the stage; the lake visible through the makeshift stage set up outside Sorin's country estate for the production of Kostya's play, an experiment in "new forms" and abstraction. Unlike Chekhov's other three major plays, in many ways more finished perhaps because less ambitious, The Seagull — sorry; I'm so used to using the article — is among other things a play about theater: about acting and actors, certainly; about writers, yes; but also about itself. I always think of Chekhov as the first truly modern playwright: this first play of his Big Four features recursion among its fingerprints; it's what Francis Ponge calls a momon, a work about itself. Chekhov himself is all over the cast list, from the young visionary writer Kostya to the successful hack writer Trigorin to the country doctor Yevgeny Sergeyevich, whose objectivity and practical acceptance of the conditions of life, while bordering on cynicism, brings a gentle note of reality to the proceedings.

There's so much to think about here. The histrionic women in this cast — three of them, of course, stage ladies seem generally to come in threes — drink and flail and wheedle and dictate. In this version, some lines have been restored giving even Polina Andreyevna her measure of desperation, so there are four failing ladies. Four of the men, too, portray various kinds of ineptitude. It's a human comedy; another aspect of Chekhov's modernity is the source he provides such diverse followers as Pirandello, Beckett, and Federico Fellini. Throwaway jokes collide with terror, cruelty, and anguish.

Marin Theatre's production is worth seeing. (It runs through Feb. 27.) Apart from the servant class, who in any event have little material to work with, the casting, and the individual roles, are quite well played; and the more difficult the role, the better the performance seems to be. John Tufts was remarkably strong as Kostya; Tess Malis Kincaid every bit as resourceful and commanding as his mother, the actress Irina; Christine Albright and Lis Sklar memorable (and very different) as the young women Nina and Marya; Craig Marker made a sympathetic character out of the weak, amoral Trigorin; Howard Swain was the well-detailed doctor Yevgeny. Smaller roles were just as well portrayed: Peter Ruocco, Richard Farrell, Julia Brothers, Michael Ray Wisely.

Jason Minadakis directed carefully and effectively, though curtains seemed mistimed and curtain lines sometimes tossed off too lightly. The large cast was well distributed onstage; even in large ensembles there never seemed to be a dead area. Robert Mark Morgan's scenic design caught the accelerating ennui and oppression of the play nicely, and Chris Houston's music — an onstage piano is used to very good effect — was atmospheric without being distracting.

The translation is by Libby Appel, who relied on a literal translation by Allison Horsely. Oddly anachronistic vernacular sometimes distracts — phrases like "desk job" and "will do" don't seem to me to belong in Chekhov's world. But this adaptation is strong, passionate, energetic, and detailed.
  • Anton Chekhov: Seagull continues through Feb. 27 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley; tel. 415.388.5208
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