Coolly Elegant Chekhov 

A revised version of The Seagull brings out strain, sadness, and rueful humor.

Readers may find it revealing that many of the plays I admire inspired riots when they were first produced. With The Seagull, it was a case of bad planning -- V.S. Pritchett tells us that the play opened in St. Petersburg as a benefit evening for a popular music hall actress, known for her work in "romping farces." The audience, mostly fans of the actress, didn't take kindly to Chekhov's lyrical realism or his satire, heckling the actors as the writer, hiding in a dressing room, swore "Not if I live to be seven hundred will I write another play." Russians accustomed to the broad farces and melodramas of the time (The Seagull opened at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in 1896) weren't ready for Chekhov's coolly drawn, hauntingly simple images. He himself described the play as having "not much action and a lot of love," a comedy about unanswered wants that ends in a suicide. It didn't help that he included a satirical play-within-a-play full of portentous images.

If audience disdain wasn't bad enough, Chekhov's friends, including admirer Lika Mizinova, were embarrassed by their thinly veiled portrayals in the play. Although Chekhov played a flirtatious game in his correspondence with Mizinova, he did not become her lover. Perhaps to make him jealous, she took up with a womanizing journalist, who got her pregnant and then abandoned her. In The Seagull, a very similar thing happens between the writer Trigorin and the young actress Nina. Chekhov worked in several of his other friends -- the suicidal painter Levitan, for example, who had already threatened to sue the writer for his portrayal of a Levitan-like character in Chekhov's story The Grasshopper -- takes the form of Kreplev, and Chekhov himself is evident in several characters.

Fortunately, when The Seagull was staged again at Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre, its delicacy, musicality, and truthfulness were better received, cementing Chekhov's reputation as a playwright with a deft touch and a profound understanding of the ironies of human existence. As he said, "To an educated Russian his past is always beautiful, his present a tale of calamity." While a comedy that ends in a suicide might seem oxymoronic, The Seagull really is funny -- not standup-comedian funny, but ruefully so, populated by characters who love, as Shakespeare said of Othello, "not wisely but too well."

In the CalShakes production of the Tom Stoppard version, director Jonathan Moscone has chosen to bring out this humor, thus better depicting the sadness and strain underlying the lives of a family of artists and their friends. Stoppard's revision is fresh without straying from Chekhov's intent: the dialogue is very clever.

The story begins at the country estate of retired civil servant Sorin (a wonderfully crotchety Charles Dean), who has let his nephew Constantin Kreplev (Sean Dugan, from HBO's Oz) build a stage on which to present his new play, an abstract modern work performed by Kreplev's beloved Nina (Susannah Schulman, who begins rather saccharine and ends deeply changed). The first performance of the play is a rousing failure, as Kreplev's actress mother Irina openly mocks the proceedings until Kreplev, incensed, stops the performance and storms out. The rest of the summer will go no better for Kreplev, who helplessly watches Nina fall for Irina's lover, Trigorin, while being doggedly pursued by the proto-Goth Masha. Nobody gets what they want, or rather, they may get what they want, but it turns out flawed and bitter to the taste. Almost every character loves someone else: not a single one sees the object of his or her affection clearly.

In the recent New York production, Meryl Streep chewed up all in her path as the self-absorbed Irina. Any sensitive young person would dread having Irina as a mother: she's parsimonious, dramatic, disappointed with her son, and she can speak of nothing but her past glories. She's also quick-witted and funny, at other people's expense. It's a complicated, wonderful part, and Kandis Chappell manages to capture both Irina's tremendous vanity and the affection she bears her son -- as long as he's docile -- without swamping everyone else in the play. Chappell doesn't take the character so far out that we no longer believe her; Irina remains sympathetic, if dreadful. The world exists to please her.

The world, however, cannot please Masha (Emily Ackerman). "Why do you always wear black?" asks her suitor, the nebbishy teacher Medevenko (Sam Misner). "I am in mourning," she snaps, "for my life." Vodka-soaked and sharp-tongued, Masha responds to Kreplev's indifference by marrying a man she can barely stand, insisting that in so doing she will "tear [her] love out by the roots." Meanwhile her parents Shamraev (Brian Keith Russell) and Polina (Catherine Castellanos) struggle with their own relationship. Dan Hiatt's fine Dr. Dorn joins Sorin on the sidelines, showing yet another facet of his capabilities: a smartass again, but kindlier than the one he gave us in Knock Knock.

Like director Moscone, Chekhov's character Kreplev proves a visual storyteller. When Moscone came to CalShakes, he took out the back wall of the Bruns to expose the great folded hills behind it. Kreplev sets up his stage with the lake as a backdrop, counting on the sunset for his lighting and railing against the old style of theater he hopes to overturn, where people sit "in a box ... bathed, for no apparent reason, in artificial light." It's as if the play were written for this particular theater, or the Bruns built for this play. John Coyne's red-orange set rolls in queasy waves; a buckling wood floor with big cracks underlies most of the action. Rooms in Sorin's estate are indicated by plenty of oriental rugs (a sly touch: Chekhov loved carpets), piles of books, and a few pieces of furniture that create the appearance of faded opulence. Leafless trees surround the fragile human space. As is often the case at CalShakes productions, the mechanics of the scene changes further the story, as when the fallen Masha has a rug laid over her. The music choices are inspired as well: unlike many CalShakes shows where the music is composed specifically for the production, Philip Glass figures prominently here.

Besides "not much action and lots of love," Chekhov's story of a disjointed family and its hangers-on summering by the lake plumbs the artistic process, exposes the emptiness of fame, and challenges the conventions of an older theater built on falsity and melodrama. As Chekhov wrote to his publisher and friend Aleksey Suvorin, "You confuse two things: solving a problem, and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist." Moscone's Seagull does not solve the problem, but states it beautifully, in a production that evokes a flavor of Old Russia while remaining bracingly contemporary.

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