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Drowning Crow by Elyse Sommer
CurtainUphas reviewed a small flock of straightforward as well as reconceived versions.
Tom Stoppard probably has been most successful in creating a witty and contemporary text while keeping faith with the original. Jeff Cohen probably went furthest afield with The Seagull: The Hamptons, 1990s, which plunked Chekhov's Russian malcontent on Long Island's shore and spiced up the text with all manner of modern allusions and vernacular. Regina Taylor has taken this major overhaul approach a giant step further. She's turned the story into an African-American saga set in the Gullah Islands off South Carolina's coast, added three characters to the all African-American cast (a two-man rap chorus named Yak and Okra, and a wise old Gullah woman named Jackie) and transformed the white gull into a black crow. Like Cohen (and actually Chekhov himself), she has also peppered her Chekhov-as-poetry slam with (according to my count) forty-six allusions to black cultural and political history. Not content with the African-American name dropping, there's a reference to Osama Bin Laden and t hat count of forty-six increases if you include the visual allusions via Wendall K. Harringtons striking projections and David Gallo's second act Jean-Michel Basquiat decorated plantation parlor.
My weariness with the frequent trendy references in the Hamptons set Seagull pales in the face of Drowning Crow's allusionary and sensory overload (there are even some rousing original songs by composer Daryl Waters, as well as riffs from numerous pop favorites which make one wish this really were a musical, like Taylor's endearing adaptation of Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry's book Crowns). While there's no denying that Chekhov's characters can be seen in terms of the present day and casting them within the context of the African-American experience is intriguing, it's disappointing to report that Ms. Taylor's crow never flies but drowns in an over-conceptualized mish-mash. Unlike the vividly and fully realized characters in Jane Smiley's novel Thousand Acres, who let us think about Shakespeare's King Lear in the context of our times, Drowning Crow is an adaptation that's true to Chekhov's plot but not to the richness of the complex relationships.
Given that this production is directed by Marion McClinton, who has done such fine work with August Wilson's plays and the genuine excitement of Drowning Crown's beginning, the overall failure of this production is especially disappointing. That first scene illustrates Chekhov's rule about the gun once seen having to go off so that everything that follows becomes a flashback and this is one aspect of this adaptation that works extremely well. Anthony Mackie, the young man wielding that gun, does so with dynamism that is evident even as it becomes apparent that the promise of the opening will be squandered. Unfortunately, the play's other leading character, Alfre Woodward, is well suited physically to play a glamorous actress of a certain age, but unable to convincingly show us what makes this woman tick.
Once the high voltage opening images give way to the flashback, the action follows the inspirational source quite accurately, right to the name changes. The conflicted mother (Woodard) is now Josephine Nicholas Ark Trip instead of Madame Arkadina and her son is Constantine Trip aka C-Trip (Mackie) instead of Konstantin Treplev. The mother is still a famous actress, but her triumphs have been as a member of the Negro Ensemble Company. The son is still a writer who wants to be famous but without compromising his talent in the manner of his mother's lover Robert Alexander Trigor (Peter Francis James playing the renamed Trigorin). C-Trip's "new form" is that of performance artists like Tupac Shakur.
Surrounding the self-absorbed, insensitive mother and her angry but yearning for approval son, is the usual cluster of Chekhovians whose lives are at odds with their dreams. Masha, or rather Mary (Tracie Thoms), still famously mourns for her life, but her hot pants and mesh stockinged mourning outfit is as out of place looking in this remote islande as it would in nineteenth century Russia. Mary loves C-Trip, who loves Hannah (Aunjanue Ellis), who loves him but is smitten with Trigor. It is her troubled relationship with trigor and an acting career that fizzles into road show appearances in Rent and Ragtime that transforms Hannah from C-Trip's beloved seagull to mournful crow.
For anyone unfamiliar with the plot the Playbill includes an easy-to-read and more complete summary but the problem is not that the story is hard to follow but that the non-stop allusionary black history lesson is jarring, and tends to make you feel that you're playing got-it rather than feeling involved with the people on stage -- this despite some very fine performances from the supporting players. It bears noting that the character of Jackie the Gullah woman, which is newly invented rather than adapted, is one of the most memorable (and I should add, memorably played by Ebony Jo-Ann). Director McClinton, though unable to circumvent the hollowness of the compex relationships, does manage to bring some authentic Chekhov flavor into the last part of the play during a game of Bingo played in the plantation parlor.
David Gallo's first act scenic cutouts don't really evoke a sense of the locale, without so much as a Gullah basket for which the area is noted in sight. Ken Billington's lovely lighting, however, does suggest the beauty of the place.
Ms. Taylor is to be commended for trying to find the "new forms " Chekhov pleaded for through Treplev. Had she not spent so much effort harnessing her vision for that new form to that of her literary forbear she might have avoided fitting her own rap for C-Trip about his mother's theater -- the theater with "impact Of zero velocity."
For a review of Crowns (written by Taylor and also featuring Ebony Jo-Ann, go here. For reviews of other productions of The Seagull check out our Chekhov Backgrounder
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