Friday, June 7, 2013

The Seagull: Tearing Down the Old Guard

“The theater is stuck.  It’s like this thing that's been around so long everyone's gotten used to it and now it's just here and no one knows why any more.”

Headlong’s production of The Seagull reminds us exactly why theater is still here—making something new from something old, finding the continuity between past and present, and even showing us a glimpse of the future. Blanche McIntyre’s perceptive direction and John Donnelly’s sizzling modern adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, reinvigorates a play you thought you knew.

With a stark but emotionally evocative set, the story of an aging actress, her upstart son, her lover, and the locals who cling to this celebrated family feels urgent and necessary. Chekhov’s conversations about art, theater, inspiration, and betrayal continue to engage, and perhaps more so in this contemporary adaptation by Donnelly. Donnelly, McIntyre, and the talented cast, find an energy which gives the play momentum and a palpable tension.

Celebrated stage actress, Irina Arkadina (Abigail Cruttenden) has come to her brother (Colin Haigh) Petr's tedious country house where her son Konstantin (Alexander Cobb) is staging an outrageous new play starring their neighbor in the country Nina (Pearl Chanda).  Konstantin is in love with Nina.  Nina falls for Irina's famous writer boyfriend Boris Trigorin (Gyuri Sarossy).  Irina is not going to lose her boyfriend to some country girl and will fight to keep him.  All this desire and misplaced love will inevitably lead to heartbreak and sadness (it's still Chekhov after all). 

The performers are strong across the board. Cruttenden plays Irina with the right a balance of vanity, strength, and brutality. Her bitchiness and over-acting flourishes are such second nature to her character.  And you can see how her son struggles to get any attention from her, let alone the attention he wants.  Sarossy as Trigorin is bookish, nervous, curious, and then suddenly underneath his quiet exterior a torrent of emotions and passions.   His manic outburst to Nina felt like it could be a New York magazine cover where some modern artist who has tasted success is complaining about how hard it is to keep feeding the insatiable public—by which I mean, we know this person.  His obsessive nature comes out and suddenly you understand why Nina's affection for him is so appetizing to him--he needs this inspiration to keep filling his creative well, regardless of the cost.  Cobb handles the shift from needy younger man to sobered adult over the course of the play well.  He is, appropriately, irritating and whiny as he clings to his "mummy" hoping that someone will pay attention to him and his work, embodying the impotent rage of misdirected youth.  Chanda was well-suited to play Nina's wide-eyed innocence and fangirl enthusiasm (this was her professional stage debut).  But as Nina's life takes a dark turn, I found Chanda very flat.  I'm not sure if she was directed to play Nina's tragic turn so empty.  We saw the flame once burning brightly had been snuffed out but I did not feel the weight of what had gone on come through in Chanda's performance.  But the production overall is so brilliant these are small things.

McIntyre crafts a minimalist but effective world for these modern versions of the characters to exist in.  Central to the staging is Laura Hopkins's set which uses a large plank. The plank gives the play a strong visual language to demonstrate the shifting alliances, troubled imbalance, and the unsteady ground all the characters exist on.  Sometimes it is laid out horizontally across the stage, teetering when people enter and leave it.  At other times it was positioned like a diving board jutting out toward the audience.  But as McIntyre has staged many scenes on top of the plank, she has kept the action suspended on a plane above the solid ground.  Adding to the atmosphere is a fabric wall behind the action.  Characters "paint" on the surface and scenes and words emerge. With a graffiti-drip style, it gives the play a suitable rougher edge. And these days anything that is not digital projection feels revolutionary.  Giving it the “handmade” touch made the whole experience more tactile and human.  When Konstantin's world shatters, McIntyre in essence does the same with the set.  The explosion she creates in the staging gives tremendous tension to the scene, layering on top of the performances. 

The look and style all work seamlessly with Donnelly’s writing. If you’ve ever had a shitty weekend in the country with friends or family, this is the adaptation for you--everyone on the verge of lust, tears or arguments. Old arguments, new arguments. Nothing changes and yet it is all anyone wants…change.  This Seagull remains “talky” but a lot less stagnant and mopey as some Chekhov productions can feel.   And how can you not love a show where Konstantin says of his mother's boyfriend Trigorin as he enters a scene writing, “'Words, words, words' --fucking Hamlet with a notebook.” Indeed.  It's a pleasure to read even if you cannot see the production.

The production continues to tour in the UK. I can only hope it might tour internationally. I’d be the first to buy another ticket. 

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