from Lloyd Rose on “The Seagull”

note: this entry has been updated by the guest author, Lloyd Rose, on July 16, 2009

During my decade as the theatre critic of The Washington Post, I spent a lot of time wondering, as I sat through yet one more, dove-grey, emotionally exquisite production of “The Cherry Orchard” or “The Three Sisters”, Why is there all this piety about Chekhov? Shakespeare has been subjected to (and survived) being transported to Bosnia or set in Elsinore Corporation. This may or may not be desirable, but at least no one tiptoes up to him as if everyone involved were in church. Chekhov flattens his admirers. They tend to act as if unworthy of his subtle artistry. His texts are sacred.

So I was pleased and heartened to see Ari Roth’s adaptation of “The Seagull” with its modest but moving introduction of religion into the soul-weary and soul-destroying world of Arkadina and her family, friends and servants. “Should” you take these famous characters and make them Jewish, something that is not only alien to the original play but alien to history itself, which relegated Russian Jewry to shetls and ghettos, not dachas? There’s no rule-book, and when, amazingly, yet another haunted layer is added to this vibrantly unhappy play, I consider the modification all to the good. It’s a bold move carried out here with the utmost respect, even delicacy, though the production itself is welcomely robust and funny and contains some of the freshest acting in a Chekhov play I’ve seen in years. Every role comes alive in surprising ways.

So much in Chekhov, you begin to think after numerous encounters, is impossible. That final scene of Nina’s, for example. I can’t recall how many talented young actresses I’ve watched come to fluttery grief repeating “I am a seagull” in wounded-Ophelia style. Veronica Del Cerro’s Nina is startlingly down-to-earth and strong; not a poetic waif but a woman punch-drunk from life’s beatings, as brain-damaged, in her way, as any fighter. The sense of loss is excruciating. Painful in another, slightly horrifying way, is Jerry Whiddon’s earnestly shallow Trigorin. The role is usually played with languid irony and ennui; Whiddon’s mediocre novelist is a bit desperate in his ordinariness, fighting hard to keep away from the realization he’s one of life’s third-raters (he seems to be hoping for at least second-place). And what better way to distract himself than with a pretty, worshipful young woman. . .

Poor Treplev tries not only to break into the future with his hopelessly bad avant-garde play, in this adaptation he is also trying, by reconnecting with Jewish mysticism and mythology, to reclaim the strength of the past. He’s doomed, of course–the people around him are happy in their thin, selfish lives, and the young people longing to explore all the depths of life drown trapped in these smug shallows. No past and faith and tradition, no future and art and hope, and, most horribly, not even a present. This production isn’t detached and compassionate and delicately shaded with melancholy; it’s strong enough to break your heart.

– Lloyd Rose