Something magical can happen when the texts of Chekhov are performed in a raw form. The complexity of each character somehow shines brightest when actors play their roles purely, without the support of glorious sets and lighting. Indeed, the simpler the Chekhov the better, evidenced by Louis Malle's brilliant 1994 film, Vanya on 42nd Street. But such simplicity also places an added burden on actors, for so much more of the value of the production rests on their shoulders.
As part of their Chekhov Marathon, Creative Artists Laboratory's production of The Seagull took on this challenge of Chekhovian minimalism with mixed results.
The Seagull is perhaps Chekhov's most famous play, tracing the struggling young writer Treplyev as he attempts to establish his career. His mother, established stage actress Arkadina, arrives from town with the famous writer Trigorin, who immediately snatches Nina's love from Treplyev with his worldliness and charm. The play explores the destructive effect of the collision of opposites: radical versus conventional, town versus country, sophisticated versus naive.
Matthew Hubbard gave a solid performance as the frustrated Treplyev, never over-simplifying his character's dreams of grandeur to simple angst. The booming baritone of Jon Cable gave an extra edge of villainy to Trigorin, while Yvonne Brechbuhler floated across the stage with innocence as Nina. Her performance of Treplyev's play was well-conceived, extremely droll without losing its sincerity As Arkadina, Sandy Harper commanded her surroundings, evoking images of Duse and Bernhardt through her diva-physicality, while John Reiniers's subtle movements painted the withering Sorin with aplomb. But the best performance of the evening was Kendall Pigg's earnest portrayal of the poor schoolmaster, Medvedyenko, as he gave depth and dimension to the character in comparatively little stage time.
Director D.A.G. Burgos guided these characters with honesty and truth; the dialogue was naturalistic and the silences profound. Especially strong were the more intimate scenes, and the quiet conversations were delicate and heart-breaking. But the ensemble scenes of the production - and indeed many of the peripheral characters themselves - lacked continuity with the rest of the staging. This made the action repeatedly drag and had a destructive effect on the play's final punch.
The uncredited set and lighting designs were extremely minimal; the same three pieces of furniture were shrewdly used to suggest the play's four locations. On the other hand, the costumes were beautiful and sometimes quite elaborate, especially for the aging starlet Arkadina.
In spite of a few weak links, Creative Artists Laboratory has fashioned a very strong Seagull with some memorable performances. The individual beats don't quite fit together into a cohesive whole, but it deserves praise as a series of intimate studies of character and relationships.
Also featuring Edward Cosme, Jeff Karr, Tanya Klein, and Ross McKenzie.
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Copyright 1998 Andrew Eggert