Doing Chekhov well is all about mood and tone, and here I think that director Joanne Camp Sobel and her cast do it just right. It's not unrelieved solemnity and ennui. There's a lightness and propulsion here, the action (if it deserves the name of action) moves forward, and ends abruptly just at the perfect moment.
The Seagull has always been a problem play. Chekhov subtitled it a comedy, but should we take him at his word, or was he being ironic? A lot of English-language productions (not this one, thankfully) tend toward the lugubrious, but maybe the Russians have a different take on Chekhov. I know this sounds ostentatious, but I saw a production in 1991 in Leningrad (by the end of that year, it was Saint Petersburg again). My Russian is nowhere near fluent enough to have followed all the dialogue, but it was evident that their interpretation of the play was as a parody.
Every time the word "chaika" (Russian for "seagull") was spoken, an ominous chord thunders out, a "symbol alert." Was Chekhov parodying the Symbolist plays of his time, or are we supposed to take this dead bird that Konstantin has shot and given to Nina seriously? Nina says: "This is obviously a symbol, but of what, I don't know. I'm not smart enough to understand you." I feel the same way. Near the end of the play, when a distraught Nina says "I'm a seagull. No, I'm an actress," and then repeats that line, is this a parody of bad writing, or just bad writing, period?
The actress playing Arkadina, who in the play is an actress, is using the kind of histrionics so broad that they can be seen from outer space: screaming, weeping, falling to her knees, writhing around on the floor. I'm pretty sure this is meant to be funny, but it may also be an appropriate interpretation of the role, since Arkadina is an actress of the "old school", the kind of melodrama that her son Konstantin is rebelling against in his attempt to find "new forms" for the theater.
Whatever Chekhov's intentions may have beencomedy, parody, dramedy, or dramaone thing is clear: This is a seminal work. You can see the 19th century turning into the 20th before your eyes. The "new forms" that Konstantin is looking for in the play were found by Chekhov, and they influenced everything that came later. What is The Sun Also Rises but a novel that Chekhov might have written if he had lived another 20 years, instead of dying of tuberculosis at age 44 in 1904? Would there be such a thing as a "New Yorker short story" without Chekhov?
What Chekhov does in this play is, in effect, take a Tolstoy novel (or maybe a telenovela) and condense it down to two hours, four short acts. He takes the classic love triangle and expands it into some sort of open-sided polygon: Semyon wants Masha, who wants Konstantin, who wants Nina, who wants Trigorin, who is the boyfriend of Arkadina, who is the mother of Konstantin. On a tangent, Polina wants Doctor Dorn, but he has plenty of other women. Throw in some Oedipal/Hamlet-y stuff between Konstantin and Arkadina, a suicide attempt, and possibly a successful suicide, and you have the stuff of a long-running melodrama, and yet it's not melodramatic at all. Does anyone find happiness? Thank you, Ira Gershwin, for encapsulating Chekhov in a couple of lines of lyrics: "With love to lead the way, I've found more clouds of gray, than any Russian play could guarantee."
Then there's a bit of post-modernism even before modernism existed: Konstantin and Trigorin are writers, Arkadina is an actress, Nina wants to be an actress, and there's a fair amount of talking about what it means to be a creative person, what kind of life does one lead and what does one give up to be an artist. Doesn't one become more of an observer than a participant in life? In one sense, it's a play about writing a play.
This is the first time I have appreciated how much there is to The Seagull, and for that I give a sincere thank you to Joanne Camp Sobel and to the excellent cast. I was very impressed by two actors new to me: Zen Kotori as Semyon and Jennifer Loli as Masha. I hope to see them in bigger roles in the future. Paul Hunton, who was so good in Death of a Salesman last year at the Vortex, is perfect as Konstantin; his silent final minutes on stage are haunting me still. Amanda Machon starts out quite natural, then becomes a little "actress-y", but that's exactly what the role of Nina requires, since she's a country girl who aspires to fame on the stage.
The cast is strong all the way through. Yolanda Maria Knight, Teresa Longo, Marc Lynch, and Charles Fisher (always a pleasure) all play their roles very well. The slyest performance is by Jim Hisler as Sorinhe got the most laughs from me. His son Mark Hisler has the longest monologue as Trigorin, and he pulls it off flawlessly.
The set is a plain wooden floor, furniture is brought in and carried out quickly, it is well-lit by John Aspholm, and the costumes by Nina Dorrance are sort of out of time and place, neither distinctively Russian nor contemporary American, and they emphasize the universal qualities of this play, which, though set in the 1890s on a country estate in tsarist Russia, really applies to all of us. The whole thing is prodigiously coordinated by Ms. Camp Sobel.
All I can say in closing is: If you don't like this production of The Seagull, you might as well give up on Chekhov altogether.
The Seagull by Anton Chekhov is being presented at the Vortex Theatre through February 24, 2013. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Info at www.vortexabq.org or 505-247-8600.