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Chicago by John Olson

The Seagull
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's interview with Levi Kreis

The Seagull
Mary Beth Fisher and Francis Guinan
Out in the suburbs, the Chicago theater community was honoring its own at the annual Jeff Awards for Equity productions, but the official opening of The Seagull at the Goodman may have been an even more effective tribute to the work being done in this city. So much of Chicago theater is realistic, actor-driven modern drama that a bravura production of Chekhov's Seagull>, staged by the director who is arguably the city's foremost and performed by a cast drawn entirely from Chicago-based actors, is an appropriate showcase of the talent and craft of Chicago theater at its highest levels.

Director Robert Falls has made a study of the realistic acting methods developed by Russian Constantin Stanislavski in the late 19th century and utilized in his 1898 production of this play. The story, concerning a family of sorts—an actress and her writer son, their neighbors and others involved in their lives—offers 10 especially rich parts, and the cast fully fleshes them out in Falls' unhurried direction. At the very top of this cast are Mary Beth Fisher as the actress Arkadina and Francis Guinan as her brother Sorin. Fisher is a believably self-centered diva, egotistical enough to lament "Why is everyone today so determined to hurt me?" without resorting to stereotype. Fisher invests Arkadina with a complex set of attitudes toward her suicidal son, the aspiring writer Konstantin. She reveals a love for him, but also an impatience and disdain, especially whenever he challenges her own needs or standing. When Ms. Fisher's Arkadina employs all her wiles to keep her writer-lover Trigorin from leaving her, using everything from physical force, clutching on to his leg as he drags her, and finally winning him over with flattery, the artistry of a real-life master actress playing this fictional manipulative actress gives us a multi-layered tribute to the art of acting.

Guinan, in the smaller but significant role of Sorin, is heartbreaking as a lonely civil servant, regretful at the emptiness of his long life and lonely on his country estate outside the bustle of Moscow. In the fourth act, his ailing Sorin speaks with a hesitancy that suggests he has suffered a stroke, creating even more empathy for this kindest and wisest of the play's characters. Demonstrating the true work ethic of Chicago actors, Guinan was practicing his craft on stage even as he was being honored for it across town by winning a Jeff Award for his role in Victory Gardens' A Guide for the Perplexed.

This production is equally blessed with performances from some of the city's best young actors. Stephen Louis Grush is Constantin, and he gives the writer a sincerity and integrity that keeps us from disdaining him as his mother does. Though Grush sometimes moves from apparent rationality to rage a bit too easily, he convinces us that Constantin's depression is very real. While he seems very much Arkadina's son in his self-absorption, we care about him because his misery seems to be the result of emotional abandonment by his mother. Masha, the daughter of the estate's manager, is played as a 19th-century goth by Kelly O'Sullivan. Her Masha has an utterly dark view of her world that causes her to settle for less than she would like but resenting her choices even as she makes them. Realizing her options are limited, she marries the earnest and (in the casting of Demetrios Troy, handsome) teacher Medvedenko, knowing she cannot have Constantin, the man she really loves. Constantin is taken with Nina, whom Heather Wood gives a completely genuine naïveté and hopefulness in the first three acts, making her breakdown in the fourth after she has been emotionally ruined by Trigorin quite devastating. Cliff Chamberlain shows Trigorin's shallowness, but gives him self-awareness and even a sort of honesty that suggests the women he misleads should have considered themselves fully warned of his lack of honor.

There's great supporting character work as well. Steve Pickering is an amusingly crusty and headstrong Shamrayev, the manager of the estate. Janet Ulrich Brooks is his wife Polina, desperately trying to win Constantin's affection for Masha by mothering her herself and hopelessly in love with the doctor Dorn—a wiser and kinder man than her husband. Dorn is given an air of sad resignation by Scott Jaeck.

In public statements, Falls has emphasized his production's focus on actors rather than sets. Todd Rosenthal's design uses a rough wooden platform that stretches diagonally across the floor of the black box Owen Theatre, with a bas-relief mural suggesting trees and sky above the upstage area. It's really all that is needed. Falls' direction keeps the focus on the performers, and draws attention to itself only in his choice to have some of the actors sometimes sitting at the back of the playing area and visible to the audience, when they are textually onstage. This device is effective in suggesting how the family influences the actions of each other even when not physically present, but it's still a little confusing as it's not used consistently.

Falls has also adapted his own script, from a translation by George Calderon. His language sounds mostly contemporary, but with a certain formality of tone that suggests late 19th century aristocracy. It makes the piece more accessible, but I could have done without a few of the current overused expressions (like "I get that" meaning "I understand," or "end of story.") These catch-phrases are irritating enough in everyday life without imposing them on Chekhov. His use of timelessness in the costumes by Ana Kuzmanic is more effective, with her designs employing a mix of earthy looks from today as well the turn of the last century.

Falls' direction is not entirely in a realistic style. There's also a certain deliberateness much of the time that borders on the presentational. It seems to say "classic" but doesn't interfere with our connection to the characters. This Seagull is above all an exceptionally clear and accessible production of the piece and an incredible opportunity for anyone desiring to study the play or Chekhov. It does take that sort of motivation to stick with it. At three hours, with the only intermission coming almost two hours into the performance following the third of four acts, Falls and Chekhov demand some careful listening from the audience. It will be well worth the effort for those audiences willing to take that journey and with tickets priced at only $10 to $45, it's an opportunity any serious lover or student of theater ought not to miss.

The Seagull will play through November 14, 2010, at the Goodman's Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. For ticket information, visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org, visit the Box Office or call 312-443-3800.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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