The Nest of Times: Making ‘Seagull’ Fly Anew
By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 21, 2009
“When I write a play I feel uncomfortable, as if somebody is poking me in the neck,” Anton Chekhov once confessed. Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth and his colleagues, too, have suffered twinges — philosophical ones — while crafting “The Seagull on 16th Street,” a risky, shofar-and-R.E.M.-inflected spin on Chekhov’s 1896 classic.
“I found myself, with my staff, talking — and sometimes arguing — about, ‘Can we do this play? Should we do this play? Are we allowed to do this play?’ ” Roth recalled last month, in an interview in his tiny 16th Street office.
His team resolved that particular bout of soul-searching, which reflected a seeming disconnect between Theater J’s mandate — to explore the Jewish cultural heritage — and Chekhov’s oeuvre. The upshot is the show that officially opens tonight, under John Vreeke’s direction. Adapted by Roth, “Seagull on 16th” veers from Chekhov’s script, with tweaked lines, new scenes and re-imagined character identities.
The young writer Treplev (Alexander Strain) is now a would-be founder of a Jewish theater troupe, bent on birthing art that speaks of God. The play he stages in Act 1 (as Chekhov conceived it, a sendup of symbolism) now alludes to the Havdalah ceremony, which recognizes the end of the Jewish Sabbath. Treplev’s mother, the famous actress Arkadina (Naomi Jacobson) mocks her son’s efforts to turn drama into “a synagogue.” And the pessimistic Masha (Tessa Klein), while still uttering her memorable quip “I’m in mourning for my life,” also says things like “You’re such a goy.”
Echoes of Pirandello sound occasionally, hinting that the characters know they’re 21st-century actors. Still, the bulk of Chekhov’s text remains, as does an ostensible 1890s Russian setting. The original play’s wryly wistful plot still peregrinates to the same aching conclusion.
“There’s a constant interplay between the present context and the past text that is a good way, we feel — I feel — of making Chekhov come alive,” Roth says. This artistic tightrope act tiptoed forward after Roth — in London in 2007, with a Theater J group — caught the Royal Court Theatre’s “Seagull,” directed by Ian Rickson. The production, which starred Kristin Scott Thomas (and later jaunted to Broadway), marked Rickson’s exit from the post of Royal Court artistic director. Bowled over by the piece, Roth began to think of “Seagull” — with its stage-dazzled characters — as a potential rite of passage in a theater’s life.
And a Chekhov staging by Theater J would be a rite of passage — because the company, known for mounting new plays, had never really dallied with vintage canonical works, unless you count the opus of Clifford Odets. “We’ve never gone back into the earlier century,” Roth notes. (In 2000, the theater did co-produce, with the Stanislavsky Theater Studio, Neil Simon’s “The Good Doctor,” based on Chekhov stories.) He thought it might be time to break that pattern. “A theater that’s devoted exclusively to new work can exhaust itself without the replenishment of those fundamental vitamins that come when you come into contact with the classics,” he says.
With the iconoclastic notion came the pushback: Chekhov was not Jewish, and “Seagull” contains no explicitly Jewish themes. So, in Roth’s words, “What the hell were we doing Chekhov for?” That query unleashed further soul-searching: “How Jewish a theater was Theater J?” The debate yielded the concept of infusing “Seagull” with Theater J’s perspective. Fortunately, Roth knew a Chekhov translator who was willing to let him do some freehanded tinkering. Carol Rocamora, who has translated all of Chekhov’s dramatic works, is also a director whose credits including founding a Philadelphia theater specializing in new plays. “I know the adaptation process,” she says calmly, pointing out that Chekhov’s writing is frequently subject to overhaul, by culprits ranging from Tennessee Williams (“The Notebook of Trigorin,” a “Seagull” variation) to New York’s avant-garde the Wooster Group (“Brace Up!,” a multimedia deconstruction of “The Three Sisters”).
Indeed, on some level, Rocamora sees Theater J’s “Seagull” riff as extending the play’s intrinsic motifs. “It’s not a Jewish ‘Seagull’ as much as a play about faith — faith in one’s ability as an artist, faith in the theater, which is Chekhov’s original intent. And then, Ari has added onto that, faith in Judaism.”
At the same time, she thinks the “comedy” — as Chekhov labeled “Seagull” — can accommodate any humor that arises from Theater J’s gentle spoofing of its own vision.
“Chekhov was born with a comedic soul,” she says, adding that, had the writer not contracted tuberculosis as a young man (he died of the disease at age 44), “he would have been the Neil Simon of Russia.”
(Chekhov the tragicomedian might have smiled ruefully at the dramatic pedigree of a prop seagull in Theater J’s new offering. It’s Jonathan, the preserved herring gull who’s frequently loaned out for “Seagull” productions by the Division of Birds at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The Smithsonian researchers who maintain a meticulous file on the bird’s stage appearances also do forensic research on bird-plane collisions.)
With Rocamora’s green light, Roth composed his “Seagull on 16th,” drawing inspiration from Louis Malle’s 1994 film “Vanya on 42nd Street,” a portrait of contemporary thespians rehearsing David Mamet’s version of “Uncle Vanya.” To draw 16th Street into “Seagull,” as Malle’s film imported Times Square into “Vanya,” Roth has some of his characters quote modern pop tunes, including R.E.M. (Pace D.C. classical music buffs: Dmitri Shostakovich’s scores also figure in the show.) Balancing a 21st-century Jewish-theater-in-Washington perspective with one from czarist Russia can be tricky. “It’s kind of been interesting to see how these two worlds mesh and meld,” Jacobson says. “It’s not always an easy transitioning.”
For instance, when she plays an assimilated Arkadina flinging the word “Jew!” at Treplev as an epithet (not an original Chekhov line), she says, “it has to be a meld of Ari, Chekhov, Arkadina and me. It’s got to ring true for all four of us.” Such moments “are challenging,” she admits, “but not without merit.”
Roth says Theater J is embracing such challenges now because, in an era when the mainstream seems to be trending more diverse, “the culturally specific theater movement is asking more existential questions than ever.”
Existential questions are hard to answer. In the meantime, “Seagull on 16th” is a round in what Roth calls “a continuing struggle to — I wouldn’t say fight with the mission. I’d just say, to make sure it’s elastic.”
© 2009 The Washington Post Company