Regional Reviews: San Francisco
An excellent Anton Chekhov's The Seagull with Comedic Overtones
Anton Chekhov on October 21, 1895 wrote "I am writing a play which I probably will not finish until the end of November. I am writing it with considerable pleasure, though I sin frightfully against the conventions of the stage. It is a comedy with three female parts, six male, four acts, a landscape, lots of talk on literature, little action and tons of love." When the play was presented by the Moscow Art Theatre in 1896, Chekhov had a violent argument with director Danchenko who wanted to present the classic as a heavy drama piece. Chekhov yelled "It's a comedy, it's a comedy, damn it."
Porchlight Theatre is presenting this four act masterpiece as Chekhov had envisioned it, a light, sophisticated comedy with some splendid acting on the part of the large cast. The company has wisely used very little in the way of sets since those magnificent tall trees are in view in the background. They have also used the complete grounds surrounding the small amphitheatre for action, entrance and exits. It's a charming night of excellent theatre.
I have seen many productions over the years of this Chekhov masterpiece and I consider it one of his best writings. I somehow always think of A Little Night Music when watching this show. The National Theatre of Britain did a superb version several years back with Joan Plowright; however, it leaned more heavily on drama than comedy. The Williamsburg Festival did a wonderful version in 1975 that I loved, with Frank Langella, Blythe Danner and Olympia Dukakis. ACT also did an interesting version several years ago.
The title of The Seagull is somewhat sarcastic, since the play is anti-idealist and anti-romance. The complexities of the play demand that we pay close attention to the loves that are mostly unrequited. There is a love quadrangle in which Kostantin (Jon Levenson), a budding new wave novelist, loves Nina (Lucy Owen), a young naïve hopeful actress, who is enchanted with Trigorin (Charles Queary), an old fashioned novelist and lover of Arkadina (Carol Mayo Jenkins), a famous Russian actress and mother of Konstantin. All of this is love without hope as described by a character in the play. Director Elizabeth Craven focuses the production on each of the individual characters, laying their individual follies and foibles bare.
The Seagull's opening scene lays the foundation of this fascinating play. Konstantin, who seems to be a fifth wheel in his actress mother's life, hopes to shatter the world of theater with his writings. He wants something fresh and experimental, so he gathers a group of friends at his mother's estate outside of Moscow for a first performance of a play full of symbolist art. (This could be a Chekhov self portrait.) The results of the play are both comic and tragic, but they are insightful of what we see in the coming acts.
This cast is outstanding. Jon Levenson captures Konstantin's brittleness and insecurity. His bombastic nature against his mother is strongly presented and his final anxious scene with Nina is excellent. Carol Mayo Jenkins is fine as the dramatically inconsistent and synthetic, self-centered actress. She has a magnificent theatrical voice that reminds me of Ethel Barrymore. Charles Queary is exceptional as the pathetic, unfulfilled Trigorin. Lucy Owen gives a lovely performance as the aspiring actress whose life turns tragic in the later acts. Her last mad scene is beautifully portrayed.
Surrounding these four characters is a super cast of actors. Joe Higgins, who plays Pyoir, nearly steals the scenes with his brilliant Shakespearean voice. His voice is infectious with a clear bell-like clarity that one does not hear often these days - this man is never upstaged by anyone. His barbs thoughout the play are very good. Nick Sholley (who was very good in the Rhino production of The Collection) is fine as the weak-willed school teacher Medvedenko. He gives a heartfelt performance in those last scenes as the unloved husband of Marsha, the daughter of the manager of the actress's estate. Tara Blau is wonderful as Marsha and she puts a comic flair to this suffering, soulful woman who loves Konstantin and vodka. Her tipsy scene is admirable.
Molly Noble is very good as the complex wife of Ilya, the manager of the Arkadina estate, played with comic intensity by Howard Dillon. His fawning over the actresses is first class. John Craven plays Dorn the doctor as a worn out, world-weary person after 30 years of medical practice. He is the ideal physician full of kindly and competent worldly wisdom. Chad Yarish, Adam Borden and Eleanor Prugh who play the servants have little do but move furniture around between scenes.
The Seagull plays at the Redwood Amphitheatre in the Marin Art and Garden Center, Ross, California through July 11. For tickets call 415-454-8316 or visit www.porchlight.net.