The actor Edmund Kean saved one of his best lines for his deathbed: “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” And since that great Shakespearean lived a few generations before Anton Chekhov, he probably never knew just how hard comedy could be.
Director Jon Langs knows. He knows the challenges of The Seagull, Chekhov’s masterful chamber symphony on the nature of art and the flawed people who make it. And he knows how to tune the music of Chekhov’s characters and dialogue, and make his play resonate in that narrow register known as truly Chekhovian. His production of The Seagull—now playing at American Player’s Theatre–is deep and rich and powerfully human.
I suspect Langs knew that a chance to do Chekhov right doesn’t come around very often in the American theater. The APT ensemble in this ensemble-driven comedy is a dream team of talent and intelligence, and he and the uniformly superb cast rose to the occasion.
The beauty of this Seagull is both in the ensemble and in the nuance and detail in individual performances. James DeVita embodies the contradictions in the writer Trigorin without a word of dialogue: He carries himself with a solid confidence, as if he meets his obligations as “famous writer” with strong shoulders. But in the first three acts, he can’t seem to figure out what to do with his hands, plagued by the nervous tic of someone who can’t quite fill his social expectations. Holly Payne’s marvelous gowns help Tracy Michelle Arnold create an Irina who imagines her life as one long curtain call. And Arnold also shows Irina’s hollowness, heartbreakingly revealing the schism between her and her son, Kostya (Christopher Sheard), with an ersatz, distracted gesture of affection when he needs it most. Watch Colleen Madden evoke the intense see-saw moods of Polina–cranky then rapturous then indifferent. She and the blustery Shamraev (James Pickering) make quite a pair, and show us exactly how their daughter Masha (Anne E. Thompson) came to be “in mourning” for her life.
It’s somehow appropriate that I saw this Seagull in the same weekend that I saw Richard Linkletter’s remarkable movie, Boyhood. Both of them offer uncanny access to the flow of a lived life. In Boyhood, that flow is palpable, observed in the way the main character, Mason, moves through the 12 years of time covered in the story. In Boyhood’s final scene, Mason’s new adult life opens onto the wide desert landscape, drunk with possibilities. In The Seagull, however, the characters’ lives all flow together into a single, churning pool. We don’t flow along with their lives, but we see their pasts in every interrupted conversation and thwarted aspiration–every frustrated assertion of a deferred dream. And Langs’ ensemble excels in the conversational music that wavers between inertia and irascible resignation.
It turns out we see their futures as well. At the end of the third act, Chekhov teases us with a sense of possibility for the writer Kostya and the young actress Nina (Laura Rook). It seems that a few of those dreams might be realized—love is in the air and aspiring artists seem poised to strike out and make their mark on the world. But the two years that separate acts three and four are marked by decay rather than growth. Langs astutely inserts the intermission here, with the air of promise hanging in the air. When we return, we see that the intervening time has brought disaster rather than fulfillment. The final act unravels with a barely masked fury, but the climax is not cathartic or transformative in the least. Things will go on as before—the numbers in the lotto game called one by one until everyone’s cards are filled.
In some ways, Tom Stoppard’s Travesties covers some of the same territory as The Seagull. There are Russians, and it’s set just a few decades later than Chekhov’s play. There are artists, as well—misunderstood idealists and confident iconoclasts. But Stoppard looks back at his subject through a postmodern, fun-house mirror that mixes and matches history and fiction with gleeful abandon.
The premise originates in a real moment of history. In the midst of World War I, James Joyce (Nate Burger), Vladimir Lenin (Eric Parks), and the founder of Dada, Tristan Tzara (Matt Schwader) were all in Zurich, Switzerland. Henry Carr, a British diplomat (Marcus Truschinski), was also there. Joyce asked Carr to appear in a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
Put all that—history, politics, aesthetics, Earnest, revolution, and several incandescent personalities—in a blender, mix well, and you’ll end up with something like Travesties. Of course, it isn’t as messy as all that. Stoppard’s wit and sense of the absurd shines from scene to scene, and part of the fun is trying to figure out what he’ll try next. The two females of Earnest show up—Gwendolyn (Cristina Panfilio) and Cecily (Kelsey Brennan)—and are mixed and matched up with stand-ins for Wilde’s men-about-town. Carr’s butler (Jeb Burris) reads the news, serves tea, and does a little bump-and-grind striptease.
It is nonsense. But as it is Stoppard, it is some of the smartest nonsense you will ever see on stage. And here, in William Brown’s high-energy production, it is infectiously funny even where its heady sense of absurdity reaches Monty Python levels. There are obscure references galore, and there is plenty of razzle-dazzle invention, mixing and matching elements of the era in the same way that Tzara constructs new “poems” by cutting up a Shakespeare sonnet and pulling random words out of a hat.
Call it a textbook example of post-modernism—an exploration of minds, lives and societies fractured by the harrowing and awesome events of the 20th century. Whatever you call it, don’t try to follow it word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase. Instead, take it as the rollercoaster ride that it is—all raw verbal energy, twists and turns in the space-time continuum, and a helluva good time.