The Seagull

Remy Bumppo Productions at Victory Gardens Theater

By Justin Hayford

What matters most is to break out of the rut. Everything else is unimportant.

–Anton Chekhov

Masha the dreary alcoholic and snuff addict marries Medvedyenko, a penniless schoolteacher who makes her skin crawl, in a vain attempt to strangle her love for Konstantine, the avant-garde idealist and perpetual failure, who tears himself to shreds over the love of Nina, a young and embarrassingly awful actress, who ends up in a torrid affair with Trigorin, a famous semitalented author and lover of Konstantine’s mother Irina, an aging and fiercely insecure actress threatened by her son’s youth and vitality. Trigorin dumps Nina. Konstantine shoots himself in the head. No, this isn’t Russia’s cable-access retread of Melrose Place. This is Chekhov’s seminal modernist masterpiece The Seagull. Which he called a comedy.

Of course, since its creation in 1895, not everyone has agreed with Chekhov’s description–most notably Stanislavsky, whose hit production of The Seagull at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898 was reportedly as somber and humorless as the director himself. (Then again, Stanislavsky went into rehearsal professing that the play was unsuited to the theater and would surely fail.) But a century later the folks at Remy Bumppo Productions have wisely taken the playwright at his word, understanding that, as Dante and Shakespeare have demonstrated rather convincingly, not all comedies are light and frivolous. For Chekhov and Remy Bumppo, daily life is a grand burlesque, a collection of missteps, false starts, misunderstandings, and disappointments. Life is one poorly timed bungle after another.

Just about everyone in The Seagull is desperately in love with someone unattainable or, worse, indifferent. Artists either have little talent and aspire to greatness or have little talent and have achieved greatness. Passion smolders but rarely flames; it’s most pitiable in the figure of Irina’s elderly brother Sorin, who owns the estate where the play is set. He says he had three great desires in life–to get married, to become a writer, and to speak beautifully–none of which he achieved, or apparently even pursued with any diligence. His one notable achievement, attaining the rank of state councillor, is something he never particularly wanted, something that “just happened by itself.” As in the dramas of the great French modernist Jean Anouilh, who learned a thing or two from Chekhov, postidealistic adulthood in The Seagull is a state of perpetual compromise.

Remy Bumppo’s cast, under James Bohnen’s direction, understand well Chekhov’s sadly comedic vision. Or more accurately, they come to understand it after two bumpy, fumbling acts. Stranded on a vast expanse of unfortunate green carpeting (which turns the Russian estate into a sprawling suburban patio), the actors at first seem to be in three or four different plays at once, struggling to find a consistent acting style that might bring out the drama lurking in Chekhov’s prosaic lyricism. Some, like Ned Schmidtke as the country doctor Dorn or Jeremy Simonson as Medvedyenko, opt for pure casualness, adhering to the hands-in-the-pockets-while-meandering method of acting. Others, like Joe Foust as Konstantine or Jessica Raab as Masha, opt for scattershot emotional illustration, acting out their feelings rather than acting on them. Still others, like Jordan Tepletz as Sorin, seem content just to say their lines and hurry offstage.

But then along comes Jillian Bach as Nina, supplying a much-needed directness to the evening. Rather than embellishing her words indulgently, as several other actors around her seem stuck doing, Bach simply goes after what she wants (which, when you get down to it, is all that acting is). Nina is here to perform Konstantine’s new play, but she has to leave in half an hour. So let’s get on with it. With a real foil onstage, Foust at last finds Konstantine’s idealistic drive. Instantly the play kicks into gear and on track.

Then along comes Linda Kimbrough as Irina, finishing the process Bach started. Kimbrough is the first actor to bring to this staging a genuine turn-of-the-century posture, both physical and psychological. She understands Irina’s sense of place in her society–and moreover appreciates that Irina never lets anyone around her forget it. In whatever she does, Irina has one simple, overarching objective: to draw attention to herself. With exquisite precision, Kimbrough puts everyone in his or her place and turns conversation into action.

Still, for the remainder of the first two acts, real relationships never quite develop (which may be due in part to the fact that I saw the final preview performance). The cast show no shared sensibility, no visceral sense of the group’s history, and therefore no real drama. For in Chekhov the ensemble is the main character, and its shared fate is the story. Chekhov’s audience isn’t meant to follow the protracted struggle of a lone protagonist but to witness “the epiphany of a collective pathos before an oppressive inevitability,” as Nicholas Moravcevich writes. Without that sense of ensemble, the play sits motionless for two acts. Of course, The Seagull is centrally concerned with paralysis and stagnation; none of the people gathered on Sorin’s estate has anything to do. But as in Beckett, that deadly boredom must always move forward.

By the time the third act starts, however, relationships begin to gel, perhaps because, after two acts together onstage, actors can’t help but share a history. And step by step the play comes together, despite Bohnen’s habit of letting his actors roam aimlessly when not planting them far upstage behind the furniture. And by the time Irina and Trigorin have their showdown in the middle of the third act, Chekhov’s comedy is fully present and deeply felt. Trigorin (played by the consistently superb Marc Vann) absurdly pleads with Irina to let him try his hand at an affair with Nina, while Irina lays on the cheap flattery to convince him to stay with her. In this potentially traumatic scene, the characters seem to grit their teeth in order to avoid embarrassing themselves and each other. As these insightful actors understand, the scene is comic in the richest, most profound sense because Trigorin and Irina realize that even in this pivotal moment they are pathetic, and that the grandest moments of their lives will always be hollow. Like so many seminal figures in modern literature, they stand apart from themselves, content to merely portray the people they once hoped they might actually become.

By the time Bach appears in the fourth act for Nina’s famous final scene, the production has reached the standard she set with her first entrance. Foust’s now-successful Konstantine is a rich, intriguing, tragically mediocre character (kudos to Bohnen for giving Foust the chance to show he can carry a play, rather than tucking him away as a supernumerary, as seems to happen to him all too often). When Nina confronts him after a two-year absence, having gone through the wringer with Trigorin and realizing that she will always be a bad actress, she stands on the precipice of despair. But as Bach understands, Nina does not fall off that precipice. She alone among all the characters has found the strength to break out of the rut they’ve settled into. She is not the seagull that Konstantine once killed by accident and laid at her feet (and that the unimaginative Trigorin wants stuffed). She is a different seagull altogether, one still able to fly away.

In her final scene she must restrain a tidal wave of contradictory emotions, any one of which might crush her if she were to give in to it, while finding the strength to leave everything familiar forever. With superb craftsmanship, Bach negotiates this emotional maze thrillingly, without ever resorting to hysterics. The scene is heartbreaking precisely because Bach maintains the kind of masterful restraint Chekhov arguably intended.

Ultimately everyone in the cast finds that sense of restraint during the last two acts, transforming a disconnected assemblage of actors into an ensemble of all-too-human types, revealing Chekhov’s gentle brilliance. For no matter how wretchedly or contemptibly his characters may behave, Chekhov never condemns them. As Desmond MacCarthy wrote some 60 years ago, The Seagull demonstrates “the delicate, truthful, humorous, compassionate frame of mind of one who observed human nature, understood, and forgave.” It is Chekhov’s forgiveness that allows him to plumb the depths of the human soul and come back laughing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): performance photo.