Regional Reviews: Chicago
They say this is the first Chekhov play Steppenwolf Theatre has ever attempted–but haven't they always been doing Chekhov? At least stylistically? In the naked naturalism they've embraced, since their inception in 1974? Oh, and in actual Chekhov, in this Seagull, nobody ever really listens to anyone else, which is another part of Chekhov's own formula for samovar-set laughs. (And, spoiler alert: there is no samovar on this otherwise perfectly Russian stage, designed by Todd Rosenthal.)
Beyond the whole "not listening to each other" thing, there was a further hint of pleasant alienation in the lovely new theater itself, the night I went. No one around me, inside the actual theater, seemed to have ever been in it at all till now, except for the friendly lobby staff out front. Inside, when the lights went down, all you could see was lots of dream-like audience staircases, softly illuminated, like some metaphysical scaffolding, full of ups and downs, surrounding an amiable arena setting. Is this is the future of theater? If so, I'm all in.
Except for one thing. The second floor bathroom I dashed into at intermission was unisex. Which, it's totally up to you. Everyone has the option of an hermetically sealed stall, which was a bit shocking this first time. Please don't be weird about this, people. Downstairs on the street level there is still a more traditional, separate men's room. And a women's room, which I presume is, in some way, traditional as well. The new facility's official name is the "Ensemble Theater in Honor of Helen Zell, in the Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center." It's got just the right amount of plush, while also seeming vaguely spare, for a theater design that is subtle, classical and revealing.
Anyway, you probably already know the rap on Chekhov as a playwright: that it's all "act two, on steroids," where people throw verbal stones at one another, from the neighboring treetops, until a gun goes off. People come, people go, but nothing ever happens in a Chekhov play, as Vicki Baum might have said, in the German potboiler Grand Hotel. Contrarily, Seagull was revolutionary in its day for showing people immersed in turmoil over things that can actually kill you: jealousy, pride and desperation–and not just about Ms. Baum's cat burglars making love to fading ballerinas. Which is why you need a polished ensemble like this one to pull it all off: like much of the 20th century's modern drama to follow, none of Chekhov's pieces entirely fit together, and yet the set can never be broken up.
Chekhov traveled extensively with his father as a young man and was primarily a doctor for about eight or nine years before beginning a shift toward becoming a famed (pseudonymous, at first) writer of short stories in the Russian newspapers. He developed a doctor's perspective on a writer's work. But Michael C. Finke's densely packed little book, "Seeing Chekhov," adds another layer of perspective, where the author's short story characters are regularly seen (or are seeing) through inappropriate views–through keyholes, or as spies, or in overheard snatches of conversation through cracks in a tramp steamer's cabin wall.
His short stories put voyeurism on a new level, with a doctor's knowledge of a patient's confessional talk; and readers were always "listening in" in all the wrong ways, to absolute naturalism. Later, his plays coincided perfectly with the birth of Constantin Stanislavski's "Method" style of naturalistic acting on the Moscow stage, where the show was revived two years later in 1898. That kind of Peeping Tom sensibility can be hard to convey in arena staging. But, because the characters don't entirely fit together, an air of espionage purrs quietly in the background.
Caroline Neff plays the ingenue, and steals the show as Nina, who helps start the play by evoking the Russian psyche, proclaiming a Universal Soul in a nascent writer's wordy monologue on a magical stage-within-a-stage. In act four, it's two years later and she comes back from a long actors' tour of the provinces, looking like the bus-and-truck version of roadkill in a viciously stagey red evening gown (courtesy of costume designer Ana Kuzmanic).
Namir Smallwood is Nina's fledgling playwright Treplev (there are two writers and one doctor in Seagull, and they have occasional revealing dialogues about one another). And Mr. Smallwood's final scene is a simple, silent masterpiece of shame and self-destruction, likewise reaching into the darkest levels of the Russian soul. It's shocking to see his farewell, right there in front of you.
Lusia Strus is delightfully lusty and expansive as Madame Arkadina, the famed stage star, whose older brother lives on the farm. Until those horrible moments when she's not delightful at all. Ms. Strus creates her own stage space around her wherever she goes, and redefines the diva for the modern age: part earth-mother, part Karen, and part legendary monster. As the mother of the young playwright, she sucks the oxygen out of their relationship at nearly every turn.
At nearly every turn, which is what makes it all so tantalizingly Chekhovian. The playwright (who only lived to be 44, dying of tuberculosis) is famously economical, but didn't skimp on character development, which makes him perfect for Steppenwolf. The mother and son quote from Hamlet's closet scene together, and are tragically tender at one point. Elsewhere you can see the great actress come out in Madame Arkadina, in a later scene, opposite the show's other writer: the celebrated Trigorin, played by the perfectly caught-in-the-moment, deer-in-the-headlights Joey Slotnick. Trigorin is intoxicated by his love for the younger actress, which seems to terrify Arkadina. When that horse gets out of the barn, Ms. Strus displays first-rate stage work to draw him back.
That's the magic of Chekhov, which Mr. Slotnick embodies: the sense that anything can happen. And I suppose that's why you need a gun on stage. I'm a bit sad to say Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen are also among the fathers of that kind of drama, too. Guns (which either miss their target or are heard from offstage) are a willful thunderclap to dispel the horrible tension in the air. But, in Chekhov, they transform their own shooters into ghostly figures.
Karen Rodriguez gets the lion's share of laughs in the comedy as the alcoholic Masha, who begins the whole thing grimly proclaiming that she's in mourning for her own life. Eric Simonson is excellent as a character who has grown used to nonchalantly playing a character (or two) himself, as the doctor. Sandra Marquez becomes a lot more prominent in this version as Polina, his former lover, the farm manager's martyred wife–creating a portrait of forbidden exasperation and desire and dread. Every actor on stage tells the same story, but in different nouns and verbs and adjectives. Someone once said it's a play about people who love the wrong people. But there should always be 1,000 different opinions about Chekhov.
Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry plays the sexagenarian older brother (of Arkadina), with a fill-in performance by Scot Jaeck over the long Memorial Day fortnight. There's also brash naturalistic support from Keith Kupferer as the farm manager, who stuffs a shot seagull as a commemorative gift, and who never quite seems in tune with the other characters, by intent. To him, they're all fools–and vice-versa, which is perfect. None of them fit together, really, and that's the point: the endless, artful grasping across needy identities. They fumble fatally, because they have no listening in them. Excellent work too, by Jon Hudson Odom as the impoverished schoolteacher who gets what he wants but lives to regret it. Elijah Newman stands in nicely for all the rustic house-servants of past versions, along with Joe Creen and Lily Fitzsimmons.
I just assume everyone knows this, but in The Seagull, the young writer shoots a smallish white sea bird, and lays it at the feet of the young actress, who (two fast-paced hours later) compulsively blurts out (twice) that she herself is that seagull, brought low. It's Freudianism, before Freud. And she's right, she's gone from being this soaring, blissfully (almost Castañedan) subjective figure, taking in the wonder of the universe in the play within the play, at the beginning. But by act four, she's become merely a disposable commodity. In a red dress!
If white unicorns represent the tempting barrier from maidenhood to womanhood, the white seagull may mean the wistful exit from naturalism into a western kind of whoredom. Because it almost seems like Chekhov himself could already see that coming, a hundred long years before the very fact of it, in his own homeland. The production itself is immaculate: five stars.
Seagull runs through June 12, 2022, at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Ensemble Theater, 1650 North Halsted, Chicago IL. Photo I.D. and proof of vaccination status are required to gain entrance, and face masks are required throughout. For more information visit them online at www.steppewolf.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association
** Member, Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble, and Actors' Equity Association
*** Member, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and Steppenwolf Ensemble Member.