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The Seagull on 16th Street

June 25, 2009 by Steve McKinight

It takes chutzpah to write new dialogue for Chekhov’s classic The Seagull and to insert Russian Jewish themes that didn’t exist in the original. While the setting and basic plot remain the same, Theater J’s The Seagull on 16th Street adds dramatic conflicts over the extent to which several characters, reimagined as Jewish, will cling to their heritage or seek to assimilate into Russian society. Yet Ari Roth’s daring in rewriting the play is a risk that pays off and rewards the audience with a new perspective on the drama. This innovative adaptation not only adds new ideas, but smoothly integrates them into the original work to enhance the characters and augment some of Chekhov’s theme.

The new material appears from the inception of the play. The young dramatist Treplev (Alexander Strain) rebels against the melodramatic grand theatre that made his mother Arkadina (Naomi Jacobson) a famous actress. In classic Chekhov, Treplev merely hopes to pursue experimental theatre forms that draw more on abstract ideas and symbols. Roth’s version not only has Treplev wanting to create theatre that draws upon his Jewish heritage, but also has his mother crush Treplev by describing the play performed for friends and family at a Russian country home as “Hebraic tripe” (instead of decadent rubbish).

Similarly, Arkadina is clearly thrilled by big city life where she is acclaimed by the intelligentsia and a member of the artistic elite. She is pleased to have escaped rural Russia, as represented by her brother Sorin (Stephen Patrick Martin) and the bohemian collection of friends and servants at Sorin’s country estate. Roth further adds to the sense of separation by having Treplev embrace his Jewish heritage while Arkadina has hidden it as part of seeking assimilation into mainstream Russian society (again, an invention added to Chekhov’s text). At one point Arkadina proclaims that she is Russian, not Jewish. Interestingly, the nineteen-year-old aspiring actress who appears in Treplev’s work, Nina (Veronica del Cerro), claims she is not Jewish, she is an artist.

The overlay of Jewish heritage extends to smaller details as well. Characters discuss whether to maintain Sabbath rituals and toast each other with “L’chaim.” When Treplev shoots a seagull (an act which foreshadows future sadness in the play), Nina states that “Killing a living creature is not very Jewish.” Later Nina recites lines from a drama called “The Sabbath Bride.”

While the play’s characters and plotline may not depend upon the Jewish perspective added in this adaptation, the approach is certainly consistent with Chekhov’s writing. A son trying to live up to his mother’s expectations, artistic souls exploring the meaning of life amid existential angst, and discontented characters with unrequited romantic feelings can all easily be melded with the new elements that Roth introduces.

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