Medvedenko the schoolteacher is in love with Masha, the daughter of the manager of a country estate. Masha is in love with Konstantin, a would-be playwright. Konstantin is in love with Nina, a would-be actress. Nina is in love with Trigorin, a successful novelist. Trigorin is in love with Irina Arkadina, a prominent actress and the mother of Konstantin. And Irina Arkadina is in love with herself.
If all this sounds terribly Russian, that’s because it is. It’s the always-brilliant Antaeus Company’s production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” In this translation by Paul Schmidt the emphasis is on the pursuit of happiness, fame, self-expression, and love. But for these characters, marooned in a tedious summer vacation in the country, there is frustration, ennui, Pinteresque silences, and subdued humor.
Under Andrew Traister’s subtle direction, however, this play in which nothing much seems to happen is endlessly fascinating. Packed with emotional undercurrents and ravishing conversation, “The Seagull” is as relevant now as it was in 1895 when it was written.
Both Konstantin, who is attempting to find “a new form” for theater, and Trigorin, who is considered “quite good, but not as good as Turgenev,” have reached a point in their work where they are questioning its worth. In a stunning soliloquy Trigorin explains to Nina what it means to be a writer. He deplores his own obsession with writing, which consumes all his thoughts and all his time.
To her questions: “What is it like to be famous? What sensations does it give you?” he replies, “What sensations? I don’t believe it gives any.”
She persists. “If you only knew how I envy you! Men are born to different destinies. Some dully drag a weary, useless life behind them, lost in the crowd, unhappy, while to one out of a million, as to you, for instance, comes a bright destiny full of interest and meaning.”
“I see nothing especially lovely about it,” he responds. “I write ceaselessly. I am, as it were, on a treadmill. I hurry forever from one story to another and can’t help myself. Do you see anything bright and beautiful in that?
“I hear my desk calling and have to go back to it and begin to write, write, write, once more,” he continues. “And so it goes for everlasting. I cannot escape myself, though I feel that I am consuming my life.”
Nina, however, refuses to be discouraged by his words. She says, “For the bliss of being a writer or an actress I could endure want, and disillusionment, and the hatred of my friends, and the pangs of my own dissatisfaction with myself, but I should demand in return fame, real, resounding fame!”
And although she had previously revealed herself to be an ill-prepared actress, she runs off to Moscow to seek fame in the theater.
In the fourth and final act of this two-hour play, all the characters are reunited in the house in the country. It is two years later, and Sorin, who owns the estate and is Irina Arkadina’s brother, is dying, presumably of old age. (He is 62, which was probably “the new 92” in the 19th century.)
Masha, who always wears black (“in mourning for my life,” as she explains) has married the schoolteacher Medvedenko and added a white collar to her black dress.
Nina, who has returned momentarily, has had a fateful two years, which is revealed in a gossipy narrative by the others in the house. She talks to Konstantin about a seagull he had once shot and presented to her as a gift. Trigorin, who had arrived on the scene at the time, viewed the seagull as a subject for a short story:
“A young girl lives all her life on the shore of a lake. She loves the lake, like a seagull, and she’s happy and free, like a seagull. But a man arrives by chance, and when he sees her, he destroys her, out of sheer boredom. Like this seagull,” Trigorin said.
Ever afterwards, Nina confesses, she had seen herself as “the seagull.”
Ironically, this play, considered one of Chekhov’s masterpieces, was a dismal failure when it premiered in 1896. But two years later, when Constantin Stanislavski remounted it and directed it and played the role of Trigorin, it was deemed a triumph and “one of the greatest events in the history of Russian theatre,” according to the critics.
The Antaeus Theatre Company’s double-cast production adds a glow to this superb play’s reputation. Laura Wernette is absolutely perfect as the self-absorbed coquette Irina Arkadina, and Bo Foxworth is mesmerizing as Trigorin. (On alternate nights these parts are played by Gigi Bermingham and Adrian LaTourelle.)
Less perfect are the performances of Micheal McShane as Sorin, Antonio Jaramillo as Konstantin, and Abby Wilde as Nina, but the minor roles played by Bill Brochtrup as the schoolteacher, Joanna Strapp as Masha, and Armin Shimerman as the estate manager, add zest and variety to the proceedings.
The 23 members of both casts are backed up by the best technicians in the business. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg has designed his usual array of sumptuous costumes, most especially those worn by Irina Arkadina, and Jeremy Pivnick has provided his award-winning skills to the lighting. Jeff Gardner’s sound design works well, and the scenic design, consisting of an impressionistic lake and woods, is the work of Lechetti Design.
“The Seagull,” presented by the Antaeus Company at The Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood, will run Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through April 15. Call (818) 506-1983 or visit www.Antaeus.org for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.