The cast of Marin Theatre Company’s Seagull, including (from left) Peter Ruocco, Christine Albright, Michael Ray Wisely and Tess Malis Kincaid, star in the world premiere of a new version by Libby Appel. Below: Craig Marker is Trigorin and Christine Albright is Nina. Photos by davidallenstudio.com
[warning: many long Russian names ahead – think of them as caviar on toast]
As long as we live in a world where celebrity and art continually clash, Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull will feel extraordinarily timely. And as long as people are restless, stingy and full of dreams, Chekhov will continue to offer extraordinary insight to his audiences.
It’s amazing that a flop play from 1896 has become such a resonant classic. From our perspective, Chekhov had the disadvantage of writing in Russian, which means his work has to be filtered through a translator/adaptor – and there have been some big names attached to that duty. Tennessee Williams did it with his “free adaptation” The Notebook of Trigorin. Playwrights Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard and Christopher Hampton have all done it as well.
Now former Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Libby Appel (working from a literal translation by Allison Horsley) brings us her version (a commission of OSF) in a world-premiere production at Marin Theatre Company under the direction of Jasson Minadakis.
This version adds in material that was cut from the original production, either by director Constantin Stanislavski or by government censors. MTC promotional materials maintain these cut scenes and lines have never been performed, so it’s practically a new Chekhov.
Except it’s not. This is Seagull (Marin cuts off the The) is what we’ve always known – artists in the country fighting and loving amongst themselves and their troubled hearts. But there’s a little extra, especially for the character of Polina, who is married to one man and openly in love with another.
This material can actually be quite repetitive, but this production has the great advantage of Polina being played by Julia Brothers, who makes what could be a whiny, annoying woman quite a compassionate soul.
Otherwise, Appel’s adaptation feels contemporary without straining and allows some of the emotional subtext to brim over into passionate language.
From the opening moments, when we see a black-clad Marya Ilyinichna (Liz Sklar) grieving for her sad life, a fog of rueful melancholy hangs over the bright green grass of Robert Mark Morgan’s lakeside set (which gets a little heavy on the penitentiary-like birch trees by play’s end). And that’s probably how Chekhov would have liked it – as long as there were also laughs, which there are.
Four wonderful actors vividly inhabit the central quartet of this rural drama. I wasn’t at all sure of Tess Malis Kincaid as famous actress Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina when she entered in the first act to watch her son’s al fresco play. She didn’t seem to have the weight or the bigger-than-life charm of an actress who is always starring in her own four-star drama.
But by the time she’s desperately trying to keep her love, the celebrated writer Boris Alekseyevich Trigorin (a masterful Craig Marker) from the arms of a younger, prettier woman, her desperation and insecurity poured from the stage.
Marker’s scenes with Christine Albright as Nina, the sweet local girl and aspiring actress, are the play’s best and most emotionally acute. They are two beautiful people caught up in the madness of their art. She’s consumed by dreams of greatness, and he’s caught up in his own cloud of celebrity, acclaim and the requisite self-doubt. Of course they’re going to dazzle each other with their most telling attributes – her beauty and innocence, his rock star/literati charisma – until it wears off and the people they really are emerge.
As Irina’s son, Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov, Tufts is the effective fourth member of the quartet. He’s a mama’s boy in the extreme, so the presence of Trigorin is an immediate threat. He’s also in love with Nina, so her obvious crush on the writer is in fact crushing to Konstantin, who also fancies himself a writer, but of the new-and-improved, not-stuffy-like-Trigorin variety.
Chekhov is the master of creating a seemingly normal, everyday portrait of life while filling his characters with every kind of emotional experience imaginable. In this assortment you have the ravages of old age represented by Pyotr Nikolayevich Sorin (Richard Farrell), mid-life jealousy (Brothers’ Polina), unrequited love (Sklar’s Masha), relative professional and emotional contentment (Howard Swain as Dr. Dorn) and nerdy devotion (Peter Ruocco as devoted husband and father Semyon Semoyonovich Medvedenko).
It’s a captivating collection of human misery at various levels of intensity and self-delusion. Minadakis’ production does what you want a Chekhov show to do: it envelops you in its recognizable world and makes you feel what these people are feeling, whether you want to share their little miseries and joys or not.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Marin Theatre Company’s Seagull continues through Feb. 20 at 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley. Tickets are $35-$53. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.