Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Though Chekhov had written several plays before The Seagull, starting with Platonov in 1878, his primary literary success had been as a writer of short stories until, in 1898, The Seagull established him as one of the greatest playwrights of his time who, along with Ibsen and Strindberg, can be said to have moved the art form into the modern era. For all its brooding characters and unrequited loves, Chekhov had considered The Seagull to be a comedy. As such it fell flat when it premiered in 1896. It was only when the legendary Konstantin Stanislavsky took hold of the play and staged it at the Moscow Art Theatre two years later, mining its emotional and psychological depth, that the play was a huge success. Chekhov followed up quickly with three more masterworks: Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, all by 1904. He died later that year.
Both in his adaptation and as a director, Johnson allows the characters to behave as contemporary people might in their circumstances, so that although the play is set in the waning days of the Russian Empire, we feel a kinship with them. In spite of different circumstances, their suffering, their passions, and their simple pleasures are all within a range of life we can understand. The play moves swiftly paced to place their debacles within the sweep of daily events. The production retains Chekhov's four acts, with an intermission between the second and third, for a total running time of about two and one quarter hours.
A quartet of characters form the core of The Seagull. Irina Arkadina is a narcissistic, aging actress who spends most of her time in Moscow or on tour, away from her family's country estate. Her son Konstantin lives on the estate but does not work it. Instead, he struggles to prove himself a playwright, nurses the emotional wounds of his mother's neglect, and pines for Nina, a lovely and dewy-eyed girl who lives at a neighboring estate, and grown up in view of Konstantin. Nina has dreams of becoming an actress. The fourth member of this quartet is Boris Trigorin, a successful author and Irina's considerably younger lover, a source of further misery for Konstantin.
When Irina makes one of her infrequent visits to the estate, with Trigorin in tow, Konstantin hopes to win his mother's praise by presenting a play he wrote, in which he has given the starring role to Nina. To Konstantin's dismay, Nina's affection for him is overshadowed by more passionate feelings for Trigorin. The estate is also populated by Petra, Irina's older sister, in failing health; the voluble estate manager Shamrayev and his wife Paulina; their daughter Masha, who is consumed by unrequited love for Konstantin; Medvedenko, a humble schoolteacher in love with Masha; and Dr. Dorn, a friend to the family, who appears to have once had a clandestine romance with Paulina.
With so many people yearning for someone who yearns for someone else, it is no wonder that tension and despair circles among them. It is as if they cannot feel the substance of their own lives, only occupy their thoughts with what is missing. This tone is set early on, when Medvedenko asks Masha why she always dresses in black, and Masha says, "I am in mourning for my life." This young woman has forsaken hope of happiness, as if life itself is denied to her, because she is fixated on what she cannot have. When Medvedenko responds that his life is much harder than hers, yet he does not wear black, Masha slyly retorts "No, you wear brown," preferring the drama and excess of mourning clothes to his tame, workaday, mundane garb.
Yet, Chekhov was not all wrong to think of his play as a comedy, for there is a great deal of wit in the dialogue, humor in the extravagance of Irina's narcissism and Trigorin's nonchalance, and comic relief whenever Shamrayev is on stage, especially as played with panache by James Ramlet. Chekhov's humor and affection for his characters enables us to embrace the turmoil they endure (whether self-inflicted or unavoidable) and hang on in hopes of that elusive state, happiness, falling upon them.
Ramlet is part of an ensemble of strong actors. The production is lifted in particular by entrancing performances in the two lead female roles, Amy Eckberg as Nina and Colleen Hennen as Irina. Eckberg conveys Nina's breathless naivete as she launches into life in the theater, and sensitivity, if not ardor, for her life-long friend Konstantin. Hennen makes it clear why Irina has had success on the stage, displaying her emotive abilities to manipulate her way through life. Berto Borroto is affecting as Konstantin, showing the pain of living in constant search of approval and love, giving little to himself. Kaleb Baker is spot on as, Trigorin, the handsome and cavalier writer who jots down bits of conversation he overhears to use in his work, rather than create from a blank page as Konstantin struggles to do.
David Coral has a sturdy, kindly presence as Dr. Dorn (perhaps Chekhov meant to place a bit of his own nature into the steadfast fellow physician), Matt Wall instills the teacher Medvedenko with a good heart and loyal nature, perhaps to a fault, Courtney Peterson conveys Paulina's constant efforts to keep her life in balance, and Laura Wiebers is moving as Petra, who, having lived without ever having a life beyond the estate, now sees the end of life on the horizon. (Note: The character was written by Chekhov as Irina's brother, Pyotr, rather than as a sister.) At the performance I attended, Rebecca Wickert did a fine job filling in for ailing Dariana Perez as Masha.
Michael Hoover's set designs–wicker furnishings for the first half, set in the garden, and elegant formal furniture for the second half, in the drawing room–effectively convey both spaces. Andrew Vance has done a superb job marking variations in tone and focus through his lighting design. Sound designer and composer Dietrich Poppen, costume designer Claire Looker, and props designer Kris Schmidt all contribute fine work as well.
What of the seagull, which gives the play its title? A gull, shot from the sky, makes an appearance early in Act Two, and returns near the end of the play, having been attended to by a taxidermist. The meaning of its presence is open to interpretation. I discern the theme of a wild creature, capable of soaring high, captured in its natural state only to have its wildness erased by those who wield control over our fates. A rather pallid explanation, I know, but given little to work with, Chekhov seems to have wanted each of us who sees The Seagull to form our own idea.
Whatever the seagull represents, the play that bears its name is a masterwork by one of the greatest playwrights to have ever lived. Chekhov moved away from theatre based largely on events and actions, toward theatre based on characters and feelings. What small events happen in the course of The Seagull are nothing; the people it so richly depicts and the feelings it so eloquently expresses are everything. Theatre in the Round Players have given us a strong, vibrant production of this play that is one of the foundational works of modern theater.
The Seagull runs through February 4, 2024, at Theatre in the Round, 245 Cedar Street, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-333-3010 or visit www.theatreintheround.org.
Playwright: Anton Chekhov, adapted by Craig Johnson; Director: Craig Johnson; Assistant Director: Rebecca Wickert; Set Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Claire Looker; Lighting Design: Andrew Vance; Sound Design and Composer: Dietrich Poppen; Props Design: Kris Schmidt; Technical Director/Fight Coordinator: Madeline Achen; Stage Manager: Lauren Volkart; Assistant Stage Manager: Matthew Wilhelm.
Cast: Kaleb Baker (Boris Trigorin), Berto Borroto (Konstantin), David Coral (Dr. Dorn), Amy Eckberg (Nina), Colleen Hennen (Irina Arkadina), Dariana Perez (Masha), Courtney Peterson (Paulina), James Ramlet (Shamrayev), Matt Wall (Medvedenko), Laura Wiebers (Petra).