February 24, 2016
Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull (1896)
is considered transformative in terms
of theatrical conventions. With
virtually no plot and little action, it
explores such themes as unrequited
love or crushed ambitions through
characters that are self-absorbed, yet
deeply intertwined. Chekhov called it
a comedy, but its tragic undercurrents
leave little room for humor. Perhaps
the biggest challenge to actors is
conveying those unspoken subtexts.
That’s not an issue for The Classic
Theatre, which has mounted an
insightful, sublimely nuanced
production of the piece. Director
Allan S. Ross assembled a solid,
well-meshed cast that works with the
cohesion of a repertory ensemble.
The Seagull is set in a lakeside
Russian estate owned by ailing,
retired statesman Peter Sorin (a sympathetic Michael Duggin), who hosts a group of people including his sister Irina (Kelly Hilliard Roush), a famous, mature actress who is vain, narcissistic and utterly insensitive. In a role that invites hamming, Ms. Roush gives a richly layered performance that exposes the fear of aging that threatens her personal appeal and career, and seems to drive her hateful actions and words.
Gifted Michael Holley is affecting as her son Constantine, the struggling, moody playwright who yearns for his mother’s approval and dreams of creating a new means of theatrical expression, despite others finding his work incomprehensible. He pines for Nina (the excellent Julya Jara), a neighbor and aspiring young actress who is smitten with Boris (talented newcomer Jonathan Pollei), the famous writer who is Irina's lover and ultimately is shown to be a heartless cad.
Masha (well drawn as a hurt but determined survivor by Chelsea Dyan Steele), is the brooding, black-clad daughter of estate-keepers Ilya (made doltish by Joe De Mott) and Paulina (an infinitely loving and patient Catherine Babbitt) who is desperately in love with Constantine. She, in turn, is adored by the schoolteacher, Simon (played as earnest and painfully sad by John D. Boyd). The remaining unrequited love is that of Paulina for Peter's kindly physician, Dr. Dorn (given well-considered dimension by Andrew Thornton), a ladies' man and former lover of Irina.
Mr. Ross elicits special focus on the characters’ interactions. In some productions they listen halfheartedly even when they disclose too much of themselves to each other. Here, they usually have attentive connections, if only to keep track of elusive loves or objects of jealousy. If their dreams or passions are unfulfilled, most of them manage to adapt and move on to live Thoreau’s lives of “quiet desperation.”
The title is derived from Constantine’s shooting a seagull for no apparent reason and bringing it back as a gift to Nina. Shocked and disturbed by the deed, she eventually believes it to be a metaphor for her life.
There are autobiographical elements in the piece: Chekhov was a known skirt-chaser who finally married at 41 and had his own experience with
his or others’ one-sided love affairs. The work habits of the two writers also suggest some of his own. Boris is a compulsive note-taker who cannot
stop thinking about his next project and harbors a secret concern about being unmasked as a charlatan. Constantine is fiercely self-critical and insecure, so much so that when he achieves success (as we learn in the
last act) much of his writing is done under a pseudonym. His final tragedy is, alas, inevitable.
The audience sits on two sides of the spare, attractive set by Ric Slocum, which features minimal furniture on the central playing space, flanked at either end by ghostly white birch trees and floating picture frames. Lighting by Pedro Ramirez is effectively done, as is the Rick Malone soundscape of birdsong and rain, classic piano or balalaika music and even a distant Russian men’s chorus.
And then, there are the costumes: magnificent, intricately detailed period-accurate dresses, coats, menswear, hats and accessories designed by the inimitable Diane Malone. The theater’s intimate setting allows a close vantagepoint to see and appreciate the buttons, pleats, ruffles and tailoring.
In every respect, it’s an absorbing, beautifully crafted version of a time-honored masterwork.
Irina (Kelly Roush) and Masha (Chelsea Dyan Steele)
with Dr. Dorn (Andrew Thornton).
Photos: Siggi Ragnar
Classic Theatre: The Seagull
From Russia, with unrequited love
The Seagull runs through March 6 at The Classic Theatre, 1924 Fredericksburg Rd., 589-8450.
Boris (Jonathan Pollei) examines the dead seagull as Nina (Julya Jara) looks on.
Irina (Kelly Roush) comforts son Constantine (Michael Holley)