KPBS AIRDATE: FEBRUARY 25, 2000
Life is what you make of it. Some people sit around in bars telling tales of chances taken, opportunities missed. Some try to create their own reality by writing or acting. Some respond to misfortune with subdued intensity, shouldering their burden and moving quietly on; others rail and rage in their grief and pain.
A parade of human reactions is currently strutting the Old Globe’s stages. In the snug Cassius Carter, there’s “The Weir,” a modest and intimate Irish drama, filled with supernatural undertones and unexpressed emotion. In the larger, Old Globe space, “The Seagull” takes wing, as expansive, unhappy Russians flood the stage with operatic passions and unrequited love. The Chekhov classic is refreshing and invigorating, but the recent work of the young Irish playwright, Conor McPherson, doesn’t live up to expectations.
The buildup for “The Weir” was enormous: Olivier Awards in London, acclaim in New York, and 60 minutes of setup in the first part of the intermissionless play. Huge preparation for a major climactic moment. But with all its poetic language and ghostly stories, “The Weir,” another name for a dam, doesn’t symbolically uncork bottled-up feelings as much as it lets them trickle out in a sluggish and unsatisfying flow. Excessive subtlety can be soporific.
In a small, Irish country pub, several craggy local barflies try to impress a newly arrived young city-gal by telling scary stories. But she outdoes them all with a harrowing tale of her own, a true-life horror with a bit of the supernatural thrown in. A sad story, but neither heart-stopping nor show-stopping. The ensemble performances are competent and credible, but the accents are erratic and the play is, ultimately, too static and chatty, and the evening, however short, meanders as slowly as water over a weir.
But there are no listless moments in Jack O’Brien’s brisk, bouncy production of “The Seagull.” Like the titular bird, the evening flies by. With O’Brien’s cunning direction and a bracing new translation by that word-wizard, Tom Stoppard, the play, at last, appears as the comedy Chekhov intended. Here we see the wide-eyed, hopeful vitality of youth contrasted with the jaded disenchantment of age. We see young people, striving to pursue a life of honest devotion to the arts, juxtaposed with the successful writer and actress — who are neither true to their art nor satisfied with their accomplishments. Stoppard underscores the generational conflict with his sly references to Hamlet, that slave to indignation, indecision and an unhealthy attachment to his mother.
Here, too, are Chekhov’s thoughts on writing and theater. And everywhere, in almost every character, there is desperate and unreciprocated love. O’Brien embellishes the update by highlighting the sexuality, to excellent effect. His cast is impeccable: Erica Rolfsrud hilariously pitiful as Masha, unhappily hitched to the pathetic Medvedenko but in love with Konstantin. Scott Parkinson’s intense, Hamletian Konstantin loves the hapless Nina, who loves the heartless Trigorin, who is tenaciously, voraciously engulfed by the selfish monster-mom, Arkadina, charmingly played by Mariette Hartley.
In their stunning costumes, the players are backed by a jaw-droppingly gorgeous set, David Ledsinger’s seductive sequence of scrims that suggest, hide and reveal, thanks to magnificent lighting by Chris Parry. James Legg’s evocative original music adds another layer to the festivities. The play’s ending may be surprising, even unsatisfying to some. But there’s nothing unsatisfactory about this starkly simple and simply beautiful production.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.