Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Oak Park Festival Theatre
Review by Karen Topham

Aurora Penepacker and Ryan Kirby
Photo by Josh Darr
Adaptation is a tricky craft. Stick too close to the source material and your work is redundant; stray too far and the adaptation feels pointless. At the same time, a writer has to avoid mere cleverness in the ability to mimic someone else's style. And even a successful adaptation will always exist in a tense relationship with its source material, unlikely to ever be read without at least implicit comparison to the original work. Beth Hyland's musical Seagulls, currently being presented by Oak Park Festival Theatre, is an ambitious, indie-rock inspired musical adaptation of Anton Chekhov's play The Seagull that sets the action in the cutthroat music industry.

On some level, turning Chekhov's play into a musical makes sense as an attempt to avoid these problems. Chekhov was a master of subtext, subtlety, and the unspoken. His plays get to the root of human behavior thanks to his unparalleled ability to capture nuance and his penchant for dark, restrained comedy. Approaching Chekhov through the musical, a form that thrives on basically none of these qualities, forces the writer to find creative solutions to the thorny problems of adaptation. It sets the dramatist an exciting but daunting challenge. How do you effectively create Chekhovian drama in a form that glories in over-the-top emotion and externalizes every thought and feeling?

Unfortunately, in execution, Seagulls doesn't quite meet the challenge. Hyland focuses the story on just four characters, centering the narrative on the artistic and romantic travails of the ambitious young musician Con, her version of Treplev. He's the leader of an indie rock band called Seagulls (no "The" in front) along with his girlfriend Nina and friends Masha and Simon. Con's mother achieved fame as a pop star named Dina D., but he is determined to find artistic success on his own merits and to create music that truly affects people. Unfortunately, his dreams are complicated when his mother shows up with her new boyfriend, indie rock icon Ben Trigorin, who takes an interest in Nina that the young woman mistakes for a purely professional fascination.

The script suffers from two major problems, the first of which is a function of adaptation. In focusing the story on Con and his bandmates, Hyland cuts both Arkadina and Trigorin from her script. Although the other characters often refer to Dina D., we never see her onstage. This is a curious decision since much of the dramatic tension of Chekhov's play comes from Treplev's conflicts with his mother and the type of artistic pretensions she represents. Even more confoundingly, Arkadina is arguably Chekhov's single most interesting character. Her absence is noticeable, and I can't help but imagine that seeing her rendered as a pop star whose fame is fading would offer a plethora of creative opportunities.

This absence speaks to the script's major dramaturgical problem, which is that the play's central idea never quite coheres because it's not totally clear whose story we're following. Since it only has four characters, the play attempts to give them all equal weight. But its fleet runtime of 90 minutes means it offers little more than a surface-level treatment of any of the issues raised here. Variously, Seagulls deals with the tension between art and commerce, the power of art to affect human lives, men abusing their power, the music industry's misogyny and its treatment of women as a commodity, learning how to accept a romantic partner warts-n-all (and the difference between settling down versus growing up), and the ethics of using your material privilege and connections to get ahead in life. Any one of these subjects could easily sustain a full-length play. The result here is like a recipe with too many ingredients: Even if they're all delicious, they don't blend into a cohesive whole.

Throughout, the production is hampered by a lack of unity. For example, all of the songs are diegetic except for "Nina's Song," the penultimate number in which she tells Con about Trigorin's callousness toward her. It's meant to be a devastating confessional, but the effect is blunted because the show feels like a traditional musical instead of a concert for the first time. Likewise, early in the play, Nina refers to an up-and-coming musician who's already been "on the cover of Pitchfork," but it's not at all clear what she means since Pitchfork is and always has been a website. This may seem like nit-picking, but these small moments concatenate to give the production a sense of artificiality that undermines its potential power.

And yet.

Despite its flaws, Seagulls crackles with an undeniable energy, thanks to its game cast. All four deliver winning, lively performances that show off impressive vocal abilities and tremendous range. In the song "Muse," for instance, Aurora Penepacker channels the energy of an indie rock chanteuse a la Caitlin Rose or Pearl Charles as she excoriates Con for treating her like a prop for his own actualization. Reacting to this perceived betrayal as he accompanies her soaring vocal, Ryan Kirby finds some delightful physical comedy with his guitar. Perhaps the highlight of the evening is the act one closer "Disaster Song," an outre slice of No Wave-inspired nonsense in which the band members switch instruments and Nina howls about climate change alongside some aleatory lyrics and nightmare music. (It makes sense in context.)

So, although Seagulls is unlikely to enter the annals of theatre history alongside its famous forbear, there are plenty of thrills to be found in seeing four young artists going for broke with their backs against the wall. After all, that's the kind of thing people write plays about.

Seagulls runs through November 19, 2023, at Pleasant Home, 217 Home Avenue, Oak Park, IL. For tickets and information, please visit