Monday, April 02, 2012

The Seagull

by Anton Chekhov
directed by Andrew J. Traister
translated by Paul Schmidt
Presented by Antaeus

review by Phillip Kelly


I could summarize Chekhov's The Seagull for you, but by God just type it in your google search bar and you're bound to run into a few story and character breakdowns, or simply go see this magnificent production by Antaeus. Although they do mostly everything by the book, they do such an extraordinary job at it, it makes me wonder why people try to do it any differently.

A couple years ago I was involved in a production of a selection of Chekhov's short works, his comedies, and I read many of his essays. It was startling to me how intoxicating and incisive his sense of humor was; his pessimism gave an edge to his wisdom and understanding of human complexities. As a writer, he doesn't so much show us the world, but heightens aspects of it ever so slightly, allowing us to laugh at ourselves while feeling empathy for those we're watching. It's hard for me to understand when people overlook this element, especially when it's so essential to not only his work, but any tragedy you hope to produce, write, direct or act in. Comedy is essential to tragedy, because it allows us to see the characters as human. It gives them life as they approach death. Directed by Andrew J. Traister, this production of The Seagull is brimming with life and characters that simply don't know how to make it work in their favor. The ridiculous often meets the dry comment. It's really quite funny. The only way this comedy can be mined at the doors of tragedy to any degree is if the actors on stage embrace the imperfections of their characters, leave their egos at the door, and become as vulnerable as newborns; suffice to say the actors here are up to that challenge and Traister's fluid, subtle and natural direction allows us to be enveloped by the performances. There's nothing here to distract.

Antaeus makes it well known they double cast their shows and revolve the actors in and out, mixing and matching them. I love the concept, not only as a way to get more people in the doors, but as a way to keep the performers on their toes. I was blessed to get this cast (and would love to see the other!), not only because the fanboy in me ate up Kurtwood Smith's perfectly balanced Doctor Dorn, or because each actor found a corner of this world to inhabit all their own, from Bonnie Snyder as the Maid, who with her two lines cracks up the audience, to Joe Delafield's portrayal of the tortured writer Konstantin, so driven to break free of the world's mediocrity and discover something new that he can never relax into his own voice as an artist or a person, to Abby Wilde's portrayal of the innocent and naive Nina, so wanting to embrace life that she confuses fame for the joy of creating art and has to suffer from the consequences of this confusion the rest of her life. Yes, everyone that graces this stage proves that they are more than just capable performers, but no one more so than Laura Wernette who embodied completely the matriarch, Arkadina.

From Arkadina's carnal seduction of Trigorin (an excellent Bo Foxworth), to her dismissive assumptions about her son Treplev, and her sudden realizations of her abhorrent behavior which bring a tenderness to her face, Laura brings a divine light to the stage like I imagine the great actors of Broadway and London did in the Golden era of theatre, when actors were treated less like faces for marketing campaigns, and more like Gods, as well they should have been. Ms. Wernette breathes, as they did, altitudes of complexity into one of the most complex female creations written and literally brings words on the page to life in the form of a living breathing human being. Chekhov as Dr. Frankenstein and Arkadina as his Monster can only work with someone like Ms. Wernette bringing beauty, grace and a willingness to embrace every imperfection of this tragically unaware and sad creature. I liken her to a Monster, but what might be more apt is Cleopatra:
Age cannot wither her,
nor custom stale Her infinite variety.

This makes her wondrous and treacherous. Arkadina in Ms. Wernette hands is Nature herself. Bravo to her and everyone else for bringing such vulnerability to the stage, it makes it hard to look away. Rarely do I gush, but this is well deserved for everyone in the production I saw.

Another round of applause for the scenic design team Lechetti Design, for which my only constructive criticism would have been to force the road and river's perspectives ever so slightly. Though in the 2nd half they create a haunting, ghost like interior, which is elevated by the very subtle, yet effective sound design by Jeff Gardner. Combined with the lighting (Jeremy Pivnick), costume (A. Jeffrey Schoenberg) and prop (Heather Ho) designers, it truly feels like you've taken a step into their world. One I'm tempted to see a second time only to rediscover the story again with a whole new selection of actors!

In the end Chekhov's The Seagull, isn't about our dying elderly, but our dying youth. We have the potential to destroy them with the emptiness we feel inside ourselves, that we're too afraid to deal with, and like a weapon when we choose to do so, that emptiness can lash out and needlessly shoot them out of the air.

The Seagull presented by the Antaeus Company. March 1st - April 15th. Thurs.-Sat. 8pm, Sun. 2pm. Tickets $30-$34. The Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood. 818-506-1983. www.anteaus.org for tickets and cast dates.

The cast I saw:

Arkadina.........Laura Wernette
Sorin................Gregory Itzin
Treplev...........Joe Delafield
Nina.................Abby Wilde
Shamrayev.....John Achorn
Paulina............Reba Waters
Masha.............Avery Clyde
Trigorin..........Bo Foxworth
Dorn................Kurtwood Smith
Medvedenko..Patrick Wenk-Wolf
Yakov..............Brian Abraham
The maid.........Bonnie Snyder

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