“ THE SEAGULL ” at the North Coast Repertory Theatre
KPBS AIRDATE: January 22, 1997
The first of Anton Chekhov’s ‘big four’ plays, “The Seagull” was a failure when it was first produced 100 years ago. In fact, it was practically hissed off the stage. The playwright himself left the production, and he vowed never to write for the theater again.
Fortunately for audiences at the turn of both centuries — the last one and the upcoming one — Chekhov was persuaded to let the newly formed Moscow Art Theatre revive “The Seagull” in 1898. It was such a triumph that the actors, so thoroughly focused, were too stunned to bow when the audience began its wild applause.
Although Chekhov’s pace and style require some re-adjustment for modern theatergoers, much in the play is still relevant a century after it was written. For one, there is the wide-eyed, hopeful vitality of youth contrasted with the jaded disenchantment of the older generation. We see those young people, striving to be creative, to pursue a life of honest devotion to the arts, juxtaposed with those who have made it — the successful writer and actress — who are neither true to their art nor satisfied with their accomplishments.
Most familiar is the love/hate relationship between young people and the parents who don’t understand them. And everywhere, at every age, there is desperate and unrequited love, which never seems to go out of style. You can practically hear the hearts breaking in the play, one by one.
In the North Coast Repertory production, what was most interesting to me was the play itself. Here is a great deal of Chekhov’s thinking about writing and about theater. Michael Frayn’s translation is rife with clichés, but this was undoubtedly intended to underscore Chekhov’s focus on the mundane, the unimaginative existences of everyday people engaged in ordinary, everyday activities.
But there is a stagnance to the production which makes it sluggish and stifling. There is not as much choreographed movement as they piece demands. There is more emoting than there should be, and less clear-cut characterization. Chekhov himself lamented the tendency to minimize the comic elements, turning his plays into lugubrious tragedies and his characters into “cry-babies.” The look is right, and I especially liked Christopher Rynne’s lighting, but there is a lack of subtlety here that diminishes the whole.
Paul Battle is credibly intense as the budding writer Konstantin, and Dede Pamperin is delightfully innocent as the young Nina, but she needs to work on modulating her voice. Same goes for John Steed. As Arkadina, the great actress, Sandra Ellis-Troy could use much more ‘star’ quality, though her later desperation was palpable. As her young writer-lover, Trigorin, Tim West had some real moments of indecision and ineptitude. In fact, for his opening night curtain-call, he looked just as transfixed as that Moscow Art Theatre cast so long ago.
As always, North Coast Rep artistic director Olive Blakistone is to be commended for tackling tough works and challenging her audience. It’s nice to see “The Seagull” take wing again.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.