We’re excited. I’m excited. The Great Undertaking Begins Today. THE SEAGULL ON 16TH STREET is us embracing a favorite play and putting a big piece of ourselves into the ample vessel that is this capacious, multi-stranded classic that seems to accommodate a virtually endless array of approaches in making it modern, relevant, and adaptable. The SEAGULL retains its form and shapeliness no matter who mucks with it. And muck with it we have, quite gleefully, ambitiously, but with enough respect–and knowledge–as to how Chekhov is done well and right, as to allow us not to bring the play and its period to us (in the present), but to bring our world of the present (and all of our spiritual, ethnic and artistic angst of the moment) and find its expression in the Chekhovian past of turn of the Century Russia.
Our day begins with introductions to the company, design presentations, a read/work through of the play, a dinner break from 5 to 6 pm, and then from 6-8 pm, a powerpoint lecture presentation from the translator and Chekhov scholar, Dr, Carol Rocamora (author of our benefit play, I TAKE YOUR HAND IN MINE) who’s with us from NYC just for the day. She’ll be talking about Chekhov’s life and the developmental history of THE SEAGULL in particular. It’s quite the dramatic journey.
If I haven’t done so yet, let’s give you a little sense of how we start our play. In the words of our immortal (though by the end quite mortal) protagonist, Treplev, “Let’s start with our STAGE DIRECTIONS!” (He doesn’t really say this. But he’s bombastic–and silly–enough that he might.)
The Seagull on 16th Street
A new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull”
by Ari Roth
Based on a translation by Carol Rocamora
The action takes place on Sorin’s rustic estate in the Russian countryside outside of Moscow near the turn of century, which is to say the late 1890s. But at the same time, we’re in a modern-day theater housed in a historic Jewish Community Center at the corner of 16th and Q Streets in Northwest DC (or any other same-such city with a smattering of assimilated, secular, cultural and religious Jews). It is inside this center that the past and present coexist in more-or-less comfortable fashion. The cast members are recognizable local performers clothed in neo-bohemian country wear. The stage is an exterior of weathered planking leading to the shores of a small lake. We sense the reflection of water. Upstage is a wooden stage in the last phase of construction; two little footlights; a fluttery curtain soon to be rigged; very Old School, yet set against a spare minimalist aesthetic that strips the back wall of the theater to reveal a contemporary stage with an illuminated analog clock doubling as the moon. The same approach can be said for a wall unit of beveled glass French doors offset by an otherwise modern proscenium of polished rosewood; a confluence of one century and another.
In short, we are there and we are here. We’re in the present but can see the past. We’re in a theater surrounded by nature. It’s called a comedy but ends in suicide. It’s Chekhovian and feels Jewish. Whatever that means. We’ll try and find out.
The sun is setting as we find a lowly worker, YAKOV, hammering nails into the stage where a performance will soon take place. Everything is running late. Off stage, sounds of a dinner party; laughter, frivolity, plates being cleared.
Or maybe the party’s not offstage. Maybe actors are already enjoying their after dinner drinks and various herbal cigarillos in full view, lounging about, as audience files in and we all watch one lowly theater worker do what needs to be done before a show can begin. As houselights fade, YAKOV continues to work, muttering to himself in song.
YAKOV: “Shiny happy people laughing…
(Shiny happy people holding hands)
Meet me in the crowd
Throw your love around
‘Love me, love me’
Take it into town
Put it in the ground
Where the flowers grow…”
No. That isn’t right…
(As guests have gotten up and begun to converge, they regard the stage – “Oooo/Look at that/My-my…”)
YAKOV: Not quite ready yet, people!
ARKADINA: You can say that again…
TRIGORIN: It’ll be fine.
SHEMRAEV: (Inspecting the platform, to Yakov) But soon, eh?
TRIGORIN: Not to worry.
YAKOV: Something’ll come up. Some note. Some “fix.”
ARKADINA: (Inspecting) It looks very…. sturdy.
TRIGORIN: It’s a temporary stage, dear.
TREPLEV: (entering, with material) I think it’s wonderful! Thank you, Yakov. Isn’t it beautiful, Mother? What could more thrilling than a play with no set?
ARKADINA: I don’t know; watching paint dry?
(EVERYONE LAUGHS at the diva’s joke!)
To be continued…