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A CurtainUp Review

The Seagull
By Ruth Gerchik

I'm always of two minds about seeing Chekhov plays. On the one hand, I enjoy their directness, the immediate feeling of intimacy with the characters, the psychological insights and that indescribable quality of genius. On the other, I'm often put off by the sepia-tinted gloominess of setting, costumes and mood most productions of Chekov's plays use to depict life among the country gentry in late 19th century Russia.

Happily, the Pearl Theatre Company's new version of The Seagull takes a different tack. Using a traditional translation by Earle Edgerton the company has mades this Seagull considerably lighter in feeling than any I've previousIy seen.

It bears noting that Chekhov started his career as a writer of jokes and comic sketches to supplement his livelihood as a student. He always punctuated tragedy with a high degree of satire. And, indeed it was Chekhov who identified The Seagull as a comedy in four acts -- never mind the interspersed destruction, self-destruction and suicide.

To illustrate the Pearl's light touch there's Sorin, Councillor of State, the local landowner condemned to a wheelchair. As portrayed by Robert Hock he is positively sprightly. The scenery too is crisp and airy. The light wood living room of the third and fourth act suggests Finnish Modern (after all, Finland is only a border away). It makes for a satisfying change from the more usual plush heaviness and lace doilies. The costumes too are bright and elegant, more Paris even than Moscow. The exception here is Masha's (Hope Chernov) wardrobe of unrelieved black which befits one who mourns for her unlived life. However, even she shows an unexpected exuberance.

And so, while all the characters in this play -- with the exception of Arkadina, the actress (Joanne Camp) -- have good reason to fling themselves into the lake, The Seagull is nevertheless a comedy. The current production's emphasis on this aspect is what sets it apart from other interpretations.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, The Seagull is about unrequited and requited love, about the Hamlet-type relationship between mother and son, about actors and the theatre, and very much concerned with the act of writing. Romantic alliances and misalliances abound, but the plot hinges on the plight of Konstantin who is thwarted in every direction by his own inadequacies and a mother who prefers the company of the man Konstantin considers his greatest rival., the swashbuckling but weak novelist Trigorin (Ray Virta.)

The opening reveals an improvised stage within-the stage set in a birch forest glade of a large estate. The innocent ingenue, Nina (Margot White) is about to showcase the dramatic nonsensical monologue invented by her would-be lover, Konstantin (Christopher Moore.) She comments: "Your play is very hard to act. There are no living people in it." Konstantin's reply to this is "Living people, why should there be? A writer's business is not to show life as it is, or as it ought to be but as it appears in our dreams." The audience consisting of Konstantin's mother, the beautiful actress Arkadina (Joanne Camp) and the entire cast of artists, misfits and ne'er-do- wells take their seats. The play is hardly underway when Arkadina begins to make fun of it. Her lover , Trigorin, the man Konstantin rivals, comments: "He can never speak in an authentic voice." The audience is polite but realizing what a fiasco he has created, Konstantin ends the performance. Nina, disappointed in her abortive debut makes her exit and the direction of the play is set .

While the tragedy, a shooting, seems more a piece of business than the Lotto game taking place in the next room, watching the characters develop is what The Seagull is really all about. On that score, the Pearl production does not disappoint. Some of the acting is exaggerated, a typical pitfall in Chekhov's plays into which even the vibrant Joanne Camp and Margot White occasionally stumble. Overall, the whole cast gives a riveting performances.

See our Chekhov page for a biography of the playwright and links to other of his works reviewed.

By Anton Chekhov
Directed by Shepard Sobel
with Kathryn Blume, Joanne Camp, Hope Chernov, Dan Daily, Duane Domutz, Matthew Gray, Robert Hock, Christopher Moore, Paul Niebanck, Carol Schultz, Edward Seamon, Ray Virta and Margot White
Dramaturge: Dale Ramsey
Set & Properties Design: Beowulf Boritt
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli
Costume Design: Barbara Forbes
Sound Design: Johnna Doty
The Pearl Theatre Company, 80 St. Mark's Place, 212/598-9802
2/16/99-3/28/99; opened3/01/99
Reviewed by Ruth Gerchick based on 3/05 performance

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