Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Art of Contemplation: The Seagull at The Huntington

The cast of the Huntington Theatre Company's production of The Seagull, in Boston, MA. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Of his four dramatic masterpieces, Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull is the most autobiographical. It’s a transparent wrestling match in which he works through his personal issues: the tortured experience that is writing, the frustrations of practicing rural medicine, the tragic conflict between artistic purity and celebrity vanity. The Huntington Theatre Company’s current production, starring Kate Burton and her son, Morgan Ritchie, illustrates how the play is itself a contemplation of life. And its singular feature--its unique conceptual vision--is to highlight how this rumination takes place in a meditative milieu. The tragicomic melodrama – the interpersonal conflicts the characters experience – occurs within a sublime pastoral atmosphere, one that gives the audience its own taste of the good life. That the characters can’t access that beauty, though, only reaffirms our inability to live it fully.

Like all Chekov’s masterpieces, The Seagull concerns life on a Russian country estate during the brief cultural springtime of the late 19th century. The drama centers around Irina Arkadina, a famous actress of the Moscow stage, and Konstantin Treplev, her son, who wants to pioneer avant garde theatre in defiance of all his mother is and stands for. Her narcissism is such that she not only neglects him all maternal affection, but openly derides him and the play he stages in Act One. Chekhov is a master of motivation, though, giving his characters an intelligibility that checks our impulse to judge. Treplev’s surreal-expressionistic poesis threatens not only the performative style that made her a star (melodramatic exteriorization), but also her sense of erotic power. It stars Nina, his sweetheart from across the estate’s lake, and her radiating spirit and beauty stand in contrast to Arkadina’s ageing grace. And when Trigorin – a famous novelist and paramour to the older woman – finds himself also taken with the girl, both mother and son reel with wounds: hers to her ego, his to his artistic idealism. She survives hers, though – her son and Nina do not. As the arts so often go, megalomania and exploitation succeed; authenticity and innocence get burned.

Thomas Derrah and Morgan Ritchie (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Maria Aitken’s direction visualizes all these interpersonal dynamics in ways at once subtle and illuminative. I saw her production of Private Lives at the Huntington a couple seasons ago and found it delightful and clever, though it fell apart a bit during the final blowout fight. But I was not prepared for the level of aesthetic sensibility she brings to Chekhov, a more demanding, risky venture than Noel Coward. With both varied levels and spacious depth, her stage images not only create painterly scenes for the eye, but also serve dramatic purposes. During the play-within-the play, for instance, Sorin (Arkadina’s older brother, who owns the estate) catches cold, prompting his sister to rise and offer him a blanket. Her gesture is both compassionate and another way to disturb her son’s performance. And at the precise moment she steps from Trigorin, the writer leans forward to peer at the monologuing Nina, who’s glanced toward him. Aiken visually foreshadows the coming romantic complications in a few seconds, without over-selling it. She really knows how to direct actors and handle realism.

Those complications arise in Act Two, when Nina drifts from Treplev and Trigorin bares his soul to her. The transition between these acts is hushed and luminous, like the giant, glowing orb of the moon that floats slowly out of view during Nina’s performance. The scenic, lighting, and sound designers (Ralph Funicello, James Ingalls, and Drew Levy, respectively) recreate the country atmosphere in all its serenity and softness. There’s a kind of respiration to the production; Aitken let’s the play breath its moods in and out (Mark Bennett’s lovely original music helps). She’s not afraid of quiet and stillness, letting us sit and listen, like the ensemble, to the call of a wood-thrush or a peasant’s guitar. Chekhov’s characters always complain about the boredom of rural rhythms – how they suck their best years away – but in this production, that life seems blessedly simple. You get a sense of the pleasure that comes from pure being, from entering into silence and attending to the sheer largesse of existence. Such moments impress on you the painful beauty of this world.

That a writer, director, or actor can recreate such experiences onstage would suggest that their life is similarly blessed. And yet Arkadina is haughty and terrified of failure, Trigorin dissatisfied and self-absorbed. Writing, as he describes it, is a curse that forever bars him from living in the moment by demanding detachment and composition. You can hear Chekhov speaking to himself in Trigorin’s lengthy second act confession, with a Tolstoyan longing for the self-forgetful bliss of peasant life. To be human is to be exiled from Eden in the sense Rilke means: the very self-consciousness that lets us contemplate beauty prevents us from playing in the openness of being. The language that lets us convey profundity also imprisons us in a world of petty squabbles – like those that overwhelm these characters.

Kate Burton in The Seagull (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
It’s difficult to know what to make of Trigorin. He’s self-absorbed, yet oblivious of it; earnest in his feelings for Nina but passively cruel to her in the long run. Tim Koch (who looks like a Heathcliff or other Romantic horseman in his boots and sideburns) plays up this passivity in his performance; his Trigorin is thoroughly even-keeled, dispassionate even when he pours his heart out (perhaps too much so). You see how open he leaves himself to Arkadina’s manipulation and the whims of his own momentary feelings. It’s curious what actors do with him in Act Four, when Shamrayev (the estate manager) shows him the titular seagull that Treplev shoots for Nina. Trigorin has it stuffed out of love for the woman but later claims not to remember why. Koch plays the claim as a lie, a knowing attempt to block the guilty memory of his abandoning the actress and their child. That’s a perfectly legitimate choice, though I think it more fascinating (and cruel) if Trigorin truly loses all remembrance of the bird – which inspired a story and sealed Nina’s love for him.

Kate Burton is truly right casting as Arkadina. With her heritage of theatrical nobility, she exudes the air and physicality of a stage aristocrat. She’s at her best in Act Two, when the diva compares her physical sprightliness to the languid, younger Masha (Meredith Holzman) sprawled on their picnic blanket, pining after Treplev. The woman delights in this supercilious sashaying (Burton looks grand in Robert Morgan’s gowns). And Burton makes you share in it even as you recoil over the inconsiderate way she builds her self-esteem. She also shares an affecting moment with Ritchie in Act Three, when Arkadina dresses the headwound Treplev gives himself in a suicide attempt. The real life mother-son intimacy comes through as she holds him. The moment is soon undone, though, by Arkadina’s screeching and Burton’s tendency to go over the top in hollow bellowing. She also refrains from going for broke later, when Irina must win back Trigorin from leaving her. The scene is a seduction, in which the actress puts on a tour de force, but the stakes aren’t high enough the way Burton and Koch play it.

Most of the rest of the ensemble are in fine form. Thomas Derrah lends Sorin a grandfatherly, whimsical quality. He’s very touching in his displays of affection for Konstantin – as if he were his grandson – and gives the character an endearing stutter that’s revelatory of character, not actorish affectation. Some of that affectation creeps into the moment when Sorin suffers a dizzy spell in Act Three; you wish Derrah would act truly distressed. As Dorn, the doctor, Marc Vietor has a smooth confidence about him that suggests a man utterly experienced in love and life, self-sufficient and done with emotional psychodramas. He sings random bits of song verse, and when he tells Sorin that to die is the law of nature, you are startled by his combination of seriousness and nonchalance. Nancy E. Carroll plays Paulina Andreyevna, Dorn’s former lover and mother to Masha. Unfortunately, she gives a somewhat maudlin performance, doing this ghoulish crone thing with her hands and face. And she makes the singularly odd choice of tearing up the flowers Nina gives Dorn and wildly flinging them about the stage. Aitken keeps her actors so grounded that you wonder how this outlandish moment slipped her notice. Likewise with the big fight over the carriage horses in Act Two, when Arkadina has it out with Shamrayev (Don Sparks). The movement’s well staged, as it always is, but the actors (Sparks especially) become unmoored and phony for a spell.

Meredith Holzman and Nancy E. Carroll
As Masha, Meredith Holzman has to negotiate the challenge of delivering lines laced with classic Russian melancholy to a contemporary American audience unable to handle emotions beyond pop glee. Luckily, most of the time she doesn’t strive for irony, and the occasions she does are earned comic relief. I really noticed in this production how awful Masha and the others treat Medvedenko, the meek schoolteacher she marries. This has much to do with Nale Nacer, who gives an utterly authentic turn as the unfortunate man. Of all the performances, his is most grounded in the given circumstances and completely normative. Aitken gives him a moment in Act Four when he’s forced to walk home in a snowstorm after Masha’s family refuses him a horse. They all turn their backs on the man, the kindest character in the play, and as Nacer slowly slumps and heads out the door, your heart goes out to him.

I’d say Nacer’s is the finest performance of all, but then I’d be forgetting Auden Thornton as Nina. With her hair of gold, Thornton is arrestingly pretty. But it’s the spirit she gives Nina that makes you understand why Trigorin and Treplev come under her spell. She gets the girl’s combination of innocent love of beauty, intellectual curiosity, fragility, and spiritual-corporeal passion. She’s strong throughout the show, but it was during Nina’s Act Four monologue that I truly realized the impressiveness of her performance. The way she works through the sudden psychic shifts in the woman – identifying herself as a seagull in momentary delusional outbursts and pulling back again – is mesmerizing. And she does it while getting very little from Morgan Ritchie. Ritchie is fine as Treplev and he’s well directed; he stays businesslike in a good sense. But he gives somewhat of a one-note performance, never moving out of Treplev’s adolescent brooding in Act One to his Hamlet-esque resignation of Act Four. Thornton’s image of a tattered seagull, though, supplies all his emotion for you, so that you’re made to feel what Treplev does, even when Ritchie fails to convey his desperation. And so you understand the choice Konstantin makes after Nina leaves – what other option is there?

When done right, Chekhov leaves you breathless with his poetry, characterization, and poignancy. And very much in this production is done right. It uses a translation by Paul Schmidt that I found prosaic, though – it fails to capture the writer’s syntax and philosophy. Trigorin tells Nina in Act Two that he feels, in his most brutally honest moments, that he’s a “complete fake.” I recall a college production of The Seagull I did, and its translation rendered the line thus: “And in everything else I’m false, false to the very marrow of my bones.” And with that heart-stopping line, Chekhov ingeniously disproves himself.

– Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, The Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain. 

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