Comedy or Drama? This question has obsessed theater artists since the Moscow Art Theater first presented THE SEAGULL over one hundred years ago. Chekhov, who carefully observed numerous artists, including himself, found much to enjoy in the antics of these desperate, narcissistic creative types, who often had trouble distinguishing the stage or the page from the real world. In one of the funniest moments in the play, the manipulative actress Arkadina, fearing her writer/lover Trigorin will leave her for a young girl, seduces him by telling him what a great artist he is. By the time she explains that he is the hope for literature’s future, Trigorin is putty in her hands.
Stanislavski didn’t quite see it that way. He and his company were more impressed with the tragic love story. Masha loves Constantine, who loves Nina, who loves Trigorin who is drawn to Arkadina. The famed first production directed by and starring the great acting teacher, was certainly a drama.
Modern productions, and there are many, try to achieve both. The roles offer actors the chance to dig deeply into their insecurities and longings to achieve characterizations of remarkable depth. This is good because there is very little plot: Constantine presents a play to gain the attention of his mother, a famed boulevard actress. His play is the antithesis of the boulevard style and seems to point the way to the expressionism of a quarter century later. The humor is derived from the deep-seated desperation that must drive all creative artists.
In Allens Lane Theater’s current rendition of THE SEAGULL, director Josh Hitchens’ incongruous comedy production sees the humor differently. When Arkadina (Hilary Kayle Crist) attempts to seduce Trigorin (Peter Zielinski) away from she rips off his shirt and begins kissing his chest. When the servant Paulina (Janet Wasser) expresses her love for the doctor she jumps him with a force that nearly knocks him over. And Constantine’s (Adam Darrow) play is a total farce, acted with thumping insincerity by an overbearing Nina. These scenes are out of step with the final act, which seems to be from a different play entirely.
This production is emphatically American. Paul Schmidt’s colloquial translation is probably the least pretentious one and has achieved great popularity. The director has adapted the play further by setting it in a modern day vacation home which resembles, in set designer J. Kenneth Jordan’s painted backdrop, an idealized Poconos’ landscape. The costumes by Amelia Williams, including shorts and sneakers, are comfortable. The modernization has some problems. Gone is the Russian isolation of Chekhov’s distant estate. Here anyone can just jump in the car and get away to the excitement of the city. Constantine does not burn his life’s work when he decides his art is useless. He merely rips it and throws it in the air. And Masha snorts cocaine?
Director Hitchens has cut all of the literary references so dear to Chekhov’s heart including one of the most famous lines: when second rate author Trigorin questions the value of his work, he says: “People will say he was good. But he was no Tolstoy.” The critical mind reels at the omission of such a famous moment. Does the director find Tolstoy an unknown writer today? Or do these modern American characters merely ignore the classics?
Despite this confusion, Adam Darrow captures the complete Constantine. Here is an artist totally committed to his work, who deeply loves Nina, and attempts suicide both from despair and in the hope of gaining attention from the women he loves. His final discovery that new forms are not as important to art as just being good, is totally convincing. Darrow cuts such a handsome figure that Nina’s (Megan Edelman) attraction to Trigorin, here played as an average 30-year-old rather than the traditional elegant-rich-older man, seems puzzling. Evidently, this depthless Nina is a pure fame junkie.
Nina and Arkadina are far from Darrow’s ability to explore the artist’s soul. Here they are shallow and generalized. Able support is provided by Gerson Alexander, as the touching old uncle, Jordan B. Mottram as a useless schoolteacher, and Elliot Rotman as the Chekhov-like doctor who calmly observes the proceedings. Keep an eye on Adam Darrow. This young actor really communicates Chekhov.
by Anton Chekhov
Translated by Paul Schmidt
Directed by Josh Hitchens
Allen’s Lane Art Center
January 18-February 13, 2013
601 West Allen’s Lane
Philadelphia, PA 19119