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THE ROYAL COURT EXPORT: CHEKHOVIAN MAGIC

 

picture - The SeagullTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published October 3, 2008

 

The Seagull

now playing on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theater

through December 21

 

Even before a nervous and haunted Konstantin appears (it is more an apparition than an appearance), we hear birds singing their distant melody and watch the mist creep in through the silver birches, and the die is cast. The Royal Court Theatre production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull has moodily and quietly alighted on Broadway. We are intrigued. We are entranced. In a matter of minutes, the two possibly most famous opening lines in the history of dramatic literature will be heard. Medvedenko, the schoolteacher who makes 23 rubles a month, asks Masha, the woman he loves but who lives with the frustration of an unrequited passion for Konstantin, "Why do you always…," and before he can finish his question, Masha covers his mouth, stopping him, so that she can breathe a heavy sigh and retain her easily lost composure, and, this done, she releases her hand, and Medvedenko goes on, "…wear black?" And Masha tells him with the only certainty her slightly alcoholic head can muster that she is in mourning for her life. The mere breaking up of that first line signals the fact that this production, under the immaculate direction of Ian Rickson, will find the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy, will pulse with new life, and, because Pearce Quigley and Zoe Kazan are so absolutely rooted in their characters, will be filled with the kind of gorgeous but understated acting that no production of Chekhov can survive without.

 

And two hours and forty minutes later, we have seen that promise more than fulfilled. Even if this Seagull does not necessarily find new revelations into the play or any of its characters, as other productions I've seen have done, it does something even rarer: it distills the essence of the play into a perfect whole, primarily by creating an ensemble which looks as if they have been living with each other on the Sorin lakeside country estate for so long that they can afford to turn away from each other at will and retreat into their own worlds. And Rickson allows us a glimpse into that retreat so that even when Chekhov's characters share a moment of silence, we cannot help but hear the silence, but we also hear the noises inside their individual heads. It is in such moments that we realize that when things are done simply and with a shared sense of truth, that is precisely how magic is created in the theater. And that is exactly what London's Royal Court has exported to our shores: the magic of Chekhov. Attention must be paid.

 

In addition to those birds singing their distant melodies, there are whistling winds and lashing rains and the cry of far-off trains, and, taken together, Ian Dickinson's sound design eloquently creates an unstable world, in which nature clashes with the mutable needs of a constantly transforming society. And Hildegard Bechtler's estate, in its interiors as well as in its landscape, is in a state of ruin and indifference, of poverty and compromised grandeur, and her costumes reflect these qualities as well. There is nothing on stage that seemed to escape Rickson's meticulous eye; in his work, vision is matched by the exquisite care lavished upon its execution.

 

But, at its center, there are the people, and that is where Rickson can lay claim to genius; he has cast this play – how else can it be said? – perfectly. There is not a single performance, no matter the significance of the character, that isn't thoroughly explored and developed.  And, even better, one sees, in these interpretations, what may have eluded us before, no matter how well we may think we know the play. For those who are seeing The Seagull for the first time (hard to believe, because, of all the great Chekhov plays, this has remained, through the years, the most produced and the most popular), it is as stunning an introduction to the play as can be imagined. This is a Konstantin, in Mackenzie Cook's heartsick vulnerability, whose genuine talent  and emotional ardor shines through his haunted and moody youthfulness. And, in direct contrast, the mediocrity of Trigorin's talent becomes transparent in the beautiful ways in which Peter Sarsgaard projects his basic spinelessness and his tentative willfulness; his illuminating self-portrait is devastating. It is also true that we can understand Nina's weaknesses as an actress in contrast with Arkadina's claim to genuine greatness as an actress through the splendidly calibrated performances of the actors playing them: Carey Mulligan's Nina, aggressive in her tremulousness, constantly fussing like a butterfly trying to take wing, is both the most luminous of any Nina this reviewer has ever seen and the most genuinely tragic, because she is a woman who wants so desperately to be something she can never really be, who surrenders to her passion rather than to her art, who cannot love the man who loves her but who loves, instead, the one man who cannot love her; Kristin Scott Thomas's Arkadina, petty and self-absorbed, a woman in deceptive command of the role she plays, is also – and herein lies the freshness of her approach to the character – emotionally and even dangerously deranged. Indeed, when her Arkadina grovels at her lover Trigorin's feet, the moment is simultaneously ludicrous, poignant, and hilariously funny and, in its way, defines what is so right about the entire distilled essence of Chekhovian purpose Rickson persists in achieving.

 

Indeed, all the characters project their desires and frustrations with a newly minted insight given them by Rickson and his actors. It is hard to erase from memory the images evoked by Peter Wight's sickly but persevering Sorin, Art Malik's cold and yet sensitive Dr. Dorn, Ann Dowd's impatient and yet long-suffering Polina, Pearce Quigley's crassly doltish but nevertheless gently touching Medvedenko, Julian Gamble's gruff but flexible Shamrayev, and, above all, and excitingly so, because she, like Sarsgaard, is new to the company, Zoe Kazan's Masha, a grandly comic portrayal of a woman who puts her self-inflicted torment on permanent display, developing, along the way, a strength that eludes almost everyone else.

 

And, finally, this production never ignores its intimations of mortality without letting us forget that life, no matter how tragically absurd, sometimes amounts to one big joke. We laugh. We cry. We move on. And we die. Chekhov's compassionate understanding of that principle is what keeps his plays alive and why it is necessary to make sure we don't take him for granted. It is greatly encouraging to see his work looked at as if no previous production ever existed.

 

It is hard to imagine that anything even half as good as The Seagull will come along this season. It is pretty damned impossible to transcend perfection.

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

 
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