Huntington's "Seagull": A Bucket List Check-Off

Kate Burton and Marc Vietor in "Seagull"
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
If you’ve been waiting for a flawless production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull”, you may now cross it off your bucket list. Huntington Theatre Company’s current production of the play is as close to sheer perfection as one could hope for. First produced unsuccessfully in 1896, but since then recognized as Chekhov’s finest full-length play, this is a work filled with actors’ dream roles (and this is a dream cast). Thus it’s no wonder that Kate Burton chose this piece to add yet another triumphant performance to her estimable list of credits with this company. Here wonderfully directed by Maria Aitken (remembered for her helming of previous Huntington efforts such as “The 39 Steps”, “The Cocktail Hour”, and “Private Lives”), the play showcases not only Burton but a large and amazingly talented cast. This version is clearly a comedy (as Chekhov himself felt), even though its larger-than-life characters experience various feelings of failure in their lives, all of them speaking with the intensity so typical of his countrymen. The translation by the late Paul Schmidt is a bit anachronistic here and there: “aspirin” for “valerian drops”, or the story of one mistaken actor’s substitution in a performance of the word “crap” (rather than “tap”) for the word “trap”. Overall, however, this version makes the play more accessible.

As with much of Chekhov, a scorecard with the names and numbers of the players wouldn’t hurt. The action takes place toward the end of the nineteenth century in the house and garden of Pyotr Sorin (Thomas Derrah), as his sister Irina Arkadina, a.k.a. Madame Treplev (Kate Burton), an actress, is visiting her playwright son Konstantin Treplev (Morgan Ritchie) with her lover, successful writer Boris Trigorin (Ted Koch). Ilya Shamrayev, Sorin’s steward (Don Sparks), his wife Paulina (Nancy E. Carroll) and daughter Masha (Meredith Holzman) are also present as Konstantin prepares to put on a makeshift performance of his latest work with aspiring actress Nina Zarechnaya (Auden Thornton), daughter of a wealthy landowner. Nina makes the first of several allusions to the titular bird, stating that she is attracted to the estate as if she were a seagull. Also on hand are Yevgeny Dorn, a doctor (Marc Vietor) and Semyon Medvedenko, a poor schoolmaster (Nael Nacer). Again as with much of Chekhov, there are various amorous complications, often unrequited ones: the schoolteacher loves Masha who loves Konstantin who in turn loves Nina, and so on. The remainder of this production’s cast includes Yaakov, a laborer (Kyle Cherry), a Cook (June Baboian), a Maid (Melissa Jesser), and a Servant (Jeff Marcus). This is one wondrous troupe.

The black-clad Masha (the hilariously dour Holzman) at the very beginning of the play exclaims: “I am in mourning for my life”. Hers is but one of several existential crises suffered by characters in the play, notably all those unrequited lovers. Chekhov’s central theme is generally accepted to be the impossibility of love; all four artists (Arkadina, Trigorin, Treplev and Nina) are in love, none of them successfully; each also finds her or his identity in work, or from admiration by others. They struggle between their creativity and real emotions, taking refuge in accepted literary expressions rather than revealing their true feelings.

As would be expected for a play more than a century old, this work has been critiqued and analyzed to a fare-thee-well, even being compared to “Hamlet”. Other themes that have been proposed are the banality of existence and one’s independence (the seagull first symbolizing freedom, later more dependence). Whatever a theatergoer takes from this work, it has surely withstood the test of time. It remains one of the most respected plays in the theatrical pantheon. As performed by this incomparable cast, bringing out many of the play’s strengths, it’s not difficult to see why. Particularly outstanding are the tormented Ritchie and the driven Thornton, as well as, not surprisingly, Burton as the self-centered diva. But even the smaller roles, such as Carroll’s hysterically frustrated Paulina or Nacer’s hapless and hopeless Semyon, are played to the hilt. Then there’s Derrah’s ironic Sorin, punctuating many a line with the useless phrase “or something”. Not for a moment did anyone in the cast seem less than natural and astonishingly real. The technical credits are all up to the company’s traditional standards, from the beautiful Scenic Design by Ralph Funicello (a rising moon over the garden filled with birches, the inviting parlor), to the lovely and varied Costume Design by Robert Morgan (especially for Burton), to the intricate Lighting Design by James F. Ingalls and atmospheric Sound Design by Drew Levy, with effective Original Music Composition by Mark Bennett.

The successful history of “The Seagull” (once past that inauspicious premiere) is proof positive that “classics” are classified as such for a reason. This “Seagull”, even after taxidermy, could easily find a further life in the theater, as it’s certainly worthy of Broadway. Or something.

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