Arts & Events
A century ago, theatre changed. The first “modern” play was The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. The usual theater fare then was melodrama which was considered to be high art. The Seagull was people just talking, expressing their innermost longings, mired in incontrovertible conflicts of the heart, and locked in a “union of opposites.” When it opened in St. Petersburg, the audience response was hostile. The actress playing Nina was so frightened that she lost her voice mid-performance, and Chekhov hid backstage after the first act. But fellow playwright and producer Nemirovich-Danchenko saw the play’s potential and three years later in 1898 convinced C. Stanislavski to direct it for their Moscow Art Theatre. The rest is history. The MAT brought its work to NYC in the ‘20’s, the crowd gasped when actors just behaved and engaged in such startling and ground-breaking staging as turning their back on the audience while conversing. It overwhelmed the audience with a naturalism that set a new tone and mode which would be the forefather of film acting. The crest of the Moscow Art Theatre still bears a seagull.
Many famous playwrights since have had a shot at adapting this seminal play, among them The Notebook of Trigorin in 1981 by Tennessee Williams (who said The Seagull was his inspiration to write plays), Tom Stoppard in 1997, and now Emily Mann with her SEAGULL IN THE HAMPTONS now playing at Shotgun Players at their Ashby Stage home.
Taking Ms. Mann’s wholly accessible work, Reid Davis has directed a seamless, marvelously cast version. Ms. Mann has set in a familiar yet parallel place where actors and writers still might keep a summer house. She spices it with recognizable references (Meryl Streep, Peter Brooks, Judy Dench, New Yorker cartoons, Red Bull fueled pre-show nerves, boom-boxes) and adapts the dialogue to post-post-modern phrasing which is much closer to the subtext of the original lines, and thereby suits this pseudo-modern century’s more candid, “out-there” parlance. Reid Davis wisely cast the actors and each fulfills the well-written roles of fully-formed, compelling portraits of recognizable characters and their motivations regardless of the size of their role. It’s a play about relationships—and even a touch of the “Gossip Girl” soap opera with so many dalliances between the characters—but full of philosophical and psychological insight. I attended Wednesday last, late in the run. It has played to very positive reviews; after seasoning through weeks of performance, it soared.
Chekhov has had a bum rap as being boring. It’s hard to read. The problem has been the clunky translations by academics using formal language that betrayed the conversational tone, the foreign and complicated Russian names that are hard to keep track of, and the directing of it as a “holy theatre” dramatic piece rather than the comedy that Chekhov specifies it to be. The play rides the line between satire and comedy; it makes fun of art-obsessed theatre people, writers and their minions while contrasting them to regular hardscrabble folks who work for a living yet live in awe of the superstars. It masterfully invokes the ironic mode in which we don’t want to be those people and we stand outside the fray and laugh at them; then at other times in the empathetic mode, we walk in their shoes and our hearts go out to them. Emily Mann reveals, “If I see another one of these Seagulls that doesn’t get a laugh and everyone’s in a corset, I’m going to scream. Chekhov was a stage rat. He knew what a funny line was. He knew actors. He understood what would and wouldn’t work on stage. He understood the humor in everyday misery….” (Read her entire interview at http://www.mccarter.org/Education/seagull/html/6.html)
The maker and shaker of this little world is the Queen Bee middle-aged actress Maria (Irina Arkadina in Chekhov). Trish Mulholland is the perfect technicolor diva with moods turning on a dime; if Maria weren’t an actress, we would call her bipolar with a narcissistic personality disorder. She is the materfamilias, the provider who bounces from stingy to beneficent, and the ultimate “cougar” in ringlets who plans never to age. I foresee an award for this performance; it would be worth it to go just to see her dominate everyone including her younger lover who she straddles and browbeats with her mercurial moods and mind-games.
Kelsey Ventner plays the giddy, overprotected, star-struck Nina with wonderful physical expressiveness, movingly nubile in her sun dress. All the men drool, and she is irresistible with her innocence. The Greeks, who had a word for every dramatic device, used the term “pharmakos” for the sacrificial lamb which “a man passing by, for want of anything better to do, destroys,” and she personifies that archetype. The fishing-hole scene with the writer Philip (Trigorin) is a dance of mutual moths to mutual flames. The director’s choreography in this and the countless arrivals and departures of the large cast goes unnoticed in its artistry unless you’re looking for it, which is high praise.
Brooding, abandoned Alex—Chekhov’s Treplev the son—is played by Liam Callister with an appropriately inherited manic-depressive temperament as a cautionary character out of Columbine High who seems to be a danger to himself or others. His apple-cheeked countenance and little boy haircut plays in counterpoint to his radical alienation and melancholy. His strange, symbolist monologue about Creation and Apocalypse are more relevant today than in 1898, since we now know about the Big Bang, tectonic plate movement, entropy, evolution, and global warming.
There are great moments throughout, from the pre-show “turn off your cell” announcement done in character by the Caretaker Lorenzo played by Mark Manske and his Wife Paula played by Beth Dietchman who interrupt one another like any contemporary bickering couple. There is a moment between Harold (Medvedenko in Chekhov) played by with nerdy aplomb by Andy Alabran who worships Milly (Masha in Chekhov) who rejects him for the unrequited love of Alex. He is eating vanilla wafers, and puts one on her thigh for her; she brushes it away, wasting food and insulting his offer; he puts another, again brushed away, and another, until she relents and eats one—it serves as a foreshadowing metaphor in dumb-show for the way he wears her down to eventually giving in to him.
Philip (Trigorin the writer) is played with 30-year-old charm and reserve by Alex Moggridge. At 30-ish, you can still hit on 18-year-olds while you have a sugar-mama. His confession about his obsession with writing—and the old artist’s dilemma they joke about that, no matter how tragic or desperate the situation, there is a little voice in the back of the head saying, “Remember this; you can use it.”—is Chekhov’s personalized perspective. Moggridge takes us through the convoluted thought-process of the monologue without missing a beat or an implication. Chekhov put himself into the work through Philip/Trigorin the obsessed writer as well as through the doctor, here called Ben (Dr. Dorn in Chekhov), a Silver Fox who has an affair with the groundskeeper’s wife, flirts with Nina, and has an ancient thing with Maria. Chekhov was a doctor who forsook his practice for writing, and was an extraordinarily handsome man who was---what is the Russian word for catnip?—to the ladies. If there is a moderator, it is Ben played by British actor John Mercer whose dialect and manner set him apart in this role and keeps him outside the fray.
Robert Broadfoot’s set of a sandy beach L-shaped dock with sunken piers and two platforms behind provide a playable platea for summer sunning under a Tommy Bahama beach umbrella and the outdoor stage where the theatrical conflict begins. The entire stage is framed by the receding wooden arches of the old church. The addition of rattan furniture takes us inside for more summer behind-closed-doors drama. By reconfiguring and covering the furniture, we enter a dark living room and move to winter. Backed by a hanging beachscape panoramic painting which lighting designer Matthew Royce uses to bounce light off of to truly transport us to the beach in the various seasons (sky light that this East Coast boy remembers well). This production is a model of collaboration, and the smooth and motivated scene changes are an object lesson for all incipient directors. Sound designer Erik Pearson’s quirky, invocative choices of entr’acte music (Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” to “I Pagliacci”) serves as tongue-in-cheek commentary while setting the mood.
Easy summer wear of plaid or white Bermuda shorts and other classy beachwear allows us to relax into the naturalism of the play but costumer Victoria Livingston Hall has some real fun with Uncle Nicky’s (Sorin) blue blazer, white trousers, pink necktie and deck shoes for the closeted gay portrayal done so deftly by Richard Louis James (Nicholas/Sorin); the outfit could be out of Noel Coward or “La Cage aux Folles.” Her costuming of Anna Ishida (Milly/Masha) in dark clothes and Doc Marten boots provides inspiration for the actress’s spirited and transforming portrayal of a rebellious, defensive, antsy, cigarette-smoking, alcohol- abusing petulant Goth teenager with a crush on all artists, who in Act Two turns into an alcohol- abusing, burdened, husband-loathing wife who settled for second-best. Little touches like simple ripped jeans for the penniless Alex, then a hooded sweatshirt for a quick scene of rejection of his mother and her lover evokes Hamlet’s “too much in the sun/son” moment ---the original play is rife with Hamlet quotes and parallel—or at minimum reminds us of the Unibomber.
Emily Mann had two hits here in the 80’s: Still Life about coming home from Viet Nam which won six Obies, and Execution of Justice about the People vs. Dan White that the old Eureka Theater commissioned. SEAGULL AT THE HAMPTONS premiered with her directing her own work at the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2008 where she is artistic director, and has adapted three other Chekhov favorite.
A word about the theater experience at Shotgun: Shotgun is hip and friendly. As you walk up to it, it reaches out to meet you with ever-changing painted info on the outside wall and a real, old-time marquee outlined in light bulbs that you expect to starting “chasing.” Box officer Jonathan Kreuze greeted us at the door attired in red shirt, black tie and jacket and snappy straw porkpie hat. Jonathan is genuinely gregarious, and was welcoming two older subscribers, bestowing free tickets for champagne and logo-ed water bottles to them. The lobby and entrance walls are painted a happy burnt umber; you walk down a little labyrinth (a short reorienting trip to the Magical Realm) to an open theater that used to be a church where you sit in pews. You can buy hard liquor and take it to your seat just like in British theaters. The staff is authentically amiable in a relaxed way, and there are almost no hard edges to the experience. The only drawback is that the pews have no cushions on the back—an easily fixed yet heretofore seemingly overlooked situation that older attendees have complained of. Most theater audiences are of an age when this discomfort conflicts with their enjoyment of the production, so I hope they it fix it soon.
SEAGULL IN THE HAMPTONS
Presented by Shotgun Players, Patrick Dooley, artistic director
At Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley (at Martin Luther King Jr. Way) across from Ashby BART station.
Final three showings Fri 4/30 & Sat 5/1 at 8 pm and Sun 5/2 at 5 pm.
Run Time: Two hours and ten minutes including the intermission
Tickets/info www.shotgunplayers.org or 510-841-6500 ext. 303.
Written by Emily Mann. Directed by Reid Davis; sets by Robert Broadfoot, costumes by Victoria Livingston Hall, lighting by Matthew Royce, sound by Erik Pearson, properties by Adriane Roberts, dramaturgy by Karl Soehnlein.
WITH (Chekhovian counterparts roles added): Andy Alabran (Harold/Medvedenko), Liam Callister (Alex/Treplev), Beth Deitchman (Paula/Polina), Anna Ishida (Milly/Masha), Richard Louis James (Nicholas/Sorin), Mark Manske (Lorenzo/Shamrayev), John Mercer (Ben/Dorn), Alex Moggridge* (Philip/Trigorin), Trish Mulholland* (Maria/Irina Arkadina), Kelsey Venter* (Nina). *Members of Actors’ Equity
John A. McMullen II is a local reviewer, teacher and director. You can reach him at EyeFromTheAisle@gmail.com