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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
But, guess what? Long before Madame Arkadina's — oops, I mean Isobel's — sensitive son Constantine improves his pistol marksmanship in time for the play's tragic climax, my inclination to compare Max Stafford-Clark's production and Kilroy's text to some of my favorite and more traditional versions, gave way to appreciating and enjoying it.
Actually, this isn't the first aggressively original adaptation I and my Curtainup colleagues have seen. Two turned the Russians into Americans and the setting to the Hamptons in Long Island at the ( Worth Theater in 1990 and the McCarter in 2008). The National Asian American Company stuck with the Russian names and setting but featured an all Asian-American cast (Our Review ). There was even one by the great Tennessee Williams, Notebook of Trigorin ). That one appropriated the story line and characters but often sounded more like Williams than Chekhov and, in a major misstep, added a homosexual subtext to the character of Arkadina's exploitative lover Trigorin.
All of these departures from the common path had their pluses and minuses. And as I would want someone who'd never seen Romeo and Juliet or Julius Caesar to first see it more traditionally staged than what's currently on offer in New York (see our Broadway and Off-Broadway listings), so a Seagull populated by Russians and 100% true to Chekhov's text would be a more ideal first venture into the Chekhovian world.
These caveats notwithstanding, Kilroy and Stafford-Clark's Irish Seagull makes a lot of sense. Both societies were similar in being made up of a class system consisting of an upper class and a peasantry, with nothing in the middle. Both had experienced social disruption and were on the cusp of a forever changed political landscape. And, except for that revisionist first interchange as a sort of in your face warning not to expect Chekhov-as-usual, the Kilroy's other verbal nips and tucks to fit the Irish setting work quite well and don't jar — for example, Peter, the former Sorin, now natters on about missing Dublin but not the job of handling petitions, claims and counter claims.
Chekhov who is said to have been infuriated by The Moscow Art Theater's emphasis on the tragic aspects of the play he very deliberately subtitled "a comedy in 4 acts", would probably like the way this production tips the balance in favor of the comedy. Most good productions I've seen do recognize the intended balance between tragedy and comedy. However, I can't recall one with the comedy quite this dominant without teetering dangerously towards vaudeville.
The actors embodying these lovelorn, self-absorbed and self-deluded characters are for the most part well cast. Trudie Styler, gorgeously costumed by Ilona Somogyi, is aptly grandiose as the actress compelled to be the star of any occasion, even if it means diminishing her son's already fragile ego. Yet she manages to convincingly evoke a bit of genuine affection when she dresses her son Constantine's self-inflicted head wound, even though her selfish side quickly wins out.
Slate Holmgren, who was the standout in the 2011 Classic Stage production of Shakespeare & John Fletcher's
Rufus Collins and Amanda Quaid also deliver excellent performances as the doctor, here named Hickey instead of Dorn, who's invariably part of any Chekhov play (an alter ego of the playwright's other profession) and the perennially black clad Mary, nee Masha. Stella Feehily who wouldn't mind more than a casual friendship with the doctor adds one of the nicest bits of Irishness to this production with her singing of the between scenes Irish folk songs.
Peter Hartwell's simple scenic design efficiently accommodates the various arrivals and departures that are Chekhov's favorite means for bringing all his characters' on stage to fill in the details of Desmond instead of the Sorin family summer home. The playing area is backed by a walkway with tall columns and a blue backdrop perhaps intended to suggest the lake where Aston, prefers fishing to being with Isobel.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of all Chekhov's plays is that every character is important, and gets a solo turn. In The Seagull, this is evident as we see the pattern of one person loving someone who loves someone else, repeated even amongst the minor characters.
For all Stafford-Clark's and Kilroy's emphasis on comedy this Seagull is doomed to end unhappily. A gun that is seen but harmless early on, is bound to do its job more effectively eventually — which goes to prove that whether set in Russia or Ireland, you may be able to take the Chekhov out of the tragedy, but you can't take the tragedy out of Chekhov.
For more about Chekhov see our Anton Chekhov Backgrounder
A Consumer Note: The Lynn Redgrave Theater is a lovely venue with stadium seating for excellent sight lines. However, it tends to be cold. Even though the weather was balmy the night I attended, all who brought jackets and sweaters bundled up. Unless you're super warm blooded, don't come without a jacket.