Mastering a Master
The Chance Theater’s take on Chekhov’s The Seagull manages the neat trick of remaining faithful without being overly reverential
Russian playwright Anton Chekhov is one of the pillars of modern Western drama, holding court in the same temple as such formidable names as Ibsen, O’Neil, Brecht and Pirandello.
But based on the Chance Theater’s production of his 1896 play The Seagull, his inclusion on that list might surprise those who associate the name Chekhov (or Chekov) more with the name of the navigator of a 23rd-century starship than with a late-19th-century Russian writer. Because there’s very little on the surface to suggest this isn’t just another play about a small group of people dealing with the frustrations, hang-ups, and assorted slings and arrows that come with sucking air on this planet.
Yet it’s the unassuming aspect of this production that makes it so refreshing. Every halfway-serious student of theater knows Chekhov’s name. It’s inescapable. A physician as well as a writer, Chekhov approached his prose and drama with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, revealing the psychological complexities and emotional maelstroms that lie within the souls of his characters. He’s considered the most human and kind of the major fathers of drama, injecting warmth and compassion into plays that are often fatalistic and foreboding. He’s in all the anthologies and textbooks. He’s an icon. And, as with most icons, he’s usually approached in the classroom with all the reverence of a Catholic High Mass. He and his plays are Important, Meaningful, Smart, Complicated and Complex.
Which is great if you’re writing an essay. The problem is, onstage, he’s also usually approached with all the reverence of a Catholic High Mass. That translates into Heavy, Droning, Dreary and Downright Boring.
Thankfully, there’s little of that in this two-and-a-half-hour production. Much of its freshness lies in Richard Nelson’s adaptation, which doesn’t exactly update Chekhov’s 1896 play, but does juice up the language and focal interest just enough to make it feel wholly resonant.
The setting and subject matter are unchanged: Madame Trepleva, a fairly successful actress from the big city, arrives for a visit at her brother’s country estate, with her current man-toy, Trigorin, also a relatively successful, if somewhat emasculated, writer, in tow. In an effort to impress said actress, her son, Konstantin, has written a play starring Nina, the young woman he adores. But the play, a freeform experiment, bombs terribly, triggering the Big Idea that this play is about: How existential frustration manifests itself in the economic and emotional frustrations of its characters.
It’s often said that not a lot happens in Chekhov, and that’s true. His plays are about the words unsaid, the motivations unspoken. They’re character-driven rather than plot-driven. Director Tony Vezner knows this, and he allows his actors to infuse their characters with quirks, tics and embellishments that make them feel like anything but museum pieces.
The most noticeable example is Melanie’s Gable’s spirited portrayal of Masha, a depressed borderline alcoholic fatally in love with Konstantin. Usually a minor, if not altogether forgettable character in TheSeagull, Gable steals nearly every scene she’s in, somehow wringing laughs from even the most apparently unfunny situations.
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The rest of the 12-person cast (it’s a Russian play, for crissake!), while not quite as lively as Gable, certainly plays Chekhov less as a serious writer wrestling with important ideas than as a playwright writing about real people. Instead of undermining Chekhov’s psychological leanings, that collective approach underscores them. When uninteresting, cardboard characters whine, bitch and moan about their sorry lots in life, it’s easy to tune them out; when it’s real people onstage doing so, it feels far more urgent and compelling.
The fact these characters seem to live in real time makes their struggles far more believable, resulting in a much more satisfying—and funny—experience than your standard Chekhov production.
This success is a credit to both the Chance and to the playwright. Much like the master who supplied the words, this production works relentlessly without ever seeming to break a sweat. That’s a subtle—and quite difficult—feat to accomplish, whether on the page or on the stage.
The Seagull at the Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714) 777-3033; www.chancetheater.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through Oct. 25. $22-$35.