Touchstone Theatre

at the Theatre Building


Huge Theatre Company

at Angel Island

Two productions of The Seagull opened last week. The one by Touchstone Theatre has a slick consistency and melodramatic tone. Housed in the comfortable, air-conditioned Theatre Building, the Touchstone show looks every bit the Lake Forest subscription theater trying to make a savvy downtown debut. The Huge Theatre production–now playing in a sweaty second-story walk-up–is crude and leaning toward the farcical. But with its Columbia College roots and scavenger-hunt production values, it’s not surprising that the Huge Theatre’s effort is often more sincere and intelligent. No, you don’t get it all in one show. It’s obvious that both companies have bitten off more than they can chew with this play. But what a play! It’s been almost 100 years since Chekhov wrote The Seagull and we’re still trying to get it right.

In 1896 the Alexandrinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg mounted the premiere of The Seagull. It was a flop. The old-fashioned acting was absurdly inappropriate for Chekhov’s freshly observed and realistic characters. Chekhov was discouraged. He vowed to give up writing plays, but the folks at the Moscow Art Theater talked him out of it and put on their own production of The Seagull in which Stanislavsky himself played Trigorin, the writer. Yet Chekhov felt that Stanislavsky–the man who practically invented psychological realism in acting–was off base for playing Trigorin as a villain. It’s not just that Chekhov was hard to please. When he looked around himself, he didn’t see heroes and villains, he saw people. Why couldn’t those people be on the stage? Why wouldn’t actors allow those people on the stage?

These aren’t extraordinary people in The Seagull, just a bunch of Russians, with about a dozen names apiece, killing time on a country estate. Essentially this is a story of unrequited love. Medvedenko (a schoolteacher) loves Masha (a malcontent country lass), who loves Treplev (a would-be writer), who loves Nina (a would-be actor), who loves Trigorin (an accomplished writer), who loves to fish but keeps company with Arkadina (an accomplished actor and Treplev’s mother). It’s questionable whether Arkadina loves Trigorin, although she certainly loves herself, and she props up everyone in the vicinity as a mirror to admire herself in. In the end, no one lives happily ever after. Life just goes on with its necessary compromises, except for Treplev, who shoots himself.

You can see how this play might easily veer into the ditch of either melodrama or farce. The Touchstone production swings toward melodrama by pumping up the relationship between Treplev and Nina to tragic proportions, although these two crazy kids aren’t really tragic characters.

Treplev (played by Sean Baldwin) is arrested in a state of adolescent rebellion at age 25, his writing most likely an attempt to impress his unloving mother, and his love for Nina a romantic exaltation begging for the sort of heartbreak that will ordain him as a gloomy, sentimental writer, which it does. But in act four when Treplev realizes what a fool he is, as both lover and writer, Baldwin plays him with such Sturm und Drang that he might be auditioning for Faustus. He gets so excited he has a hard time tearing up his manuscripts, thin pieces that turn into Chicago phone books in his frenzied hands.

Nina too is cracked up to be some big tragic heroine. Look at her in the Touchstone production poster–captured against the background of Lake Michigan, winsome, dressed all in white. It’s all too preposterous. Jenifer Tyler plays Nina as a scampering young filly, very naive, in the first three acts, and then as tragically damaged goods haunting the moors in the last act. When she breaks down and cries in her final, confessional scene with Treplev, it’s a gesture out of a soap opera: boo hoo hoo.

When you fall short of tragedy, you get melodrama. You get people crawling around on the floor, supplicating and slobbering–like in the scene when Arkadina yanks on Trigorin’s leash. Trigorin on the floor? Impossible, especially a Trigorin as dispassionate and mildly quirky as Kendall Marlowe plays him. Yet there he is groveling on the floor because director Ina Marlowe put him there. Ms. Marlowe is fond of such directorial flourishes–by way of heightening the mood or punching the moment even to the point of using snippets of background music. Such schmaltz (composed by Jim Ragland) is excusable during scene changes, but when it intrudes on the play it gets to be like a bad TV show. When Sorin (owner of the country estate) becomes suddenly ill, for instance, there’s a stabbing musical exclamation point to highlight his collapse. And when Shamraev (the estate manager) makes an entrance at one point, there’s a musical “wa wa wa,” a leitmotiv signaling imminent comic relief, just like when the Beaver brings home a bad report card.

Still, there are scenes and individual performances that rise above the overall corny approach of the Touchstone production. Trigorin’s scene with Nina, when he explains the tiresome, obsessive business of writing, is very good, as is the preceding scene, when Treplev illustrates just how idiotic an unrequited lover can be. Clay Rouse (as Medvedenko the schoolteacher) is the only actor who doesn’t sound like an actor, and his adenoidal, peevish characterization seems closest to what Chekhov had in mind. Adrianne Cury (as Masha), dressed all in black with temperament to match, reminds me of one of those suburban punkettes you see at the Dunkin’ Donuts at Belmont and Clark–the same sort of fashionable nihilist Chekhov might have seen on the streets of Moscow a century ago.

Bad habits can be just as enduring, and Melinda Moonahan’s performance as Arkadina would have made Chekhov pull his hair out. Certainly Arkadina is supposed to be affected and vain, constantly striving to be the center of attention. But there still must be some character beneath the affectation, which Moonahan never considers. Her Arkadina is a caricature of a caricature, too remotely contrived to be intriguing or even laughable. In the scene when Treplev hits her up for some money, the stingy Arkadina explodes “I’m an actress, not a banker!” Moonahan delivers this line downstage center, facing the audience, going for the big laugh. She doesn’t get it, any more than Wrong-Way Riegels scored that big touchdown. Moonahan was facing the wrong audience. She should have been performing for Treplev.

Donna Jerousek plays Arkadina in the Huge Theatre production. Jerousek is 20 years too young for the role, but she gives a far more convincing performance. This Arkadina is a headstrong airhead who wants only to be obeyed, agreed with, and, most of all, adored. All other forms of social intercourse, especially the responsibilities of a mother, are sheer annoyance. For this Arkadina, life is a homecoming parade and she the queen impatiently waiting for her float to get under way. The critical difference between Jerousek’s and Moonahan’s characterizations is that Jerousek knows what she wants, and she tries to get it from the other characters, rather than directly from the audience.

Jerousek is an unconscionably forceful actor, however, and tends to blow the rest of the cast off the stage. This creates a new dynamic whereby Nina and Treplev, in spite of their larger roles, become subordinate characters. Nina can now be seen as Arkadina’s rival for Trigorin. And Treplev’s behavior takes on a distinctly oedipal note: his attempt to both impress and discredit his mother with his one-act play, making Nina an actor in that play, even his professional jealousy of Trigorin’s success as a writer. And when Nina forsakes Treplev to become an actor (like Arkadina) as well as Trigorin’s abused and discarded lover, Treplev’s humiliation is complete. Treplev is not Oedipus, but rather the-schmuck-who-would-be-Oedipus. The drama still focuses on the unrequited love of Treplev for Nina, but it’s cast in the light and shadow imposed by Arkadina.

Because Arkadina is a frivolous person, and because Jerousek plays her with such natural comic finesse, that often mentioned, rarely manifested, Chekhovian sense of ironic humor begins to surface. For example, in the Huge Theatre production, Trigorin doesn’t grovel on the floor in that scene when Arkadina reels him in from his idle flirtation with Nina. He actually laughs. He knows he’s being manipulated outrageously, and Arkadina knows she’s doing it, but she does it so well it cracks him up. I can’t say that I found Brian Shaw’s portrayal of Trigorin satisfying overall, but I was impressed by his imaginative, and nearly unprecedented, decision to actually give one of Chekhov’s characters a sense of humor.

But The Seagull isn’t a comedy, or a farce, and this production strays too far in that direction. Director David Cromer’s pacing is much too fast and his grip too loose. With a cast of such uneven talents, that invites the repartee and the quick shot whether it’s merited or not. Jim Zulevic (as Shamraev) definitely goes overboard with a characterization right out of Monty Python. Dramatic balance is forfeited–Chekhov may people his plays with buffoons, but they don’t wear red rubber noses–figuratively speaking. By act four the cast is whipped into a froth over which they have little control and the performance erupts in a chaos of crude and loud acting.

All the more surprising that Paul Myers (as Treplev) and Stephanie Galfano (as Nina) should pull the play out of this tailspin in their final scene together. When Galfano cries, it’s not an artful sob, her face buried in her little fists. Instead Nina’s face turns ugly, twisted, infantile–in that pathetically absurd way that people’s faces really look when they cry. Then she pulls herself together, forces a laugh, or tries to anyway, and that’s somehow ugly too. My guard was up but I was touched–sympathetically, not sentimentally. Myers surprised me too, not by tearing those manuscripts up in a frenzy, but by calmly mutilating them and then proceeding stiffly and robotically to his offstage suicide.

You have two very different productions to choose from. If you’re into comfort, gorgeous costumes (by Lynne Palmer), and standardized performances, go see the Touchstone production. If you decide to sweat out the raggedy but more imaginative Huge Theatre production, take a cold bottle of seltzer. I kind of enjoyed seeing both, however mangled. I guess a century of mangled Chekhov has reconciled me to that inevitability, and I prefer it to no Chekhov at all.

As long as actors are more concerned with getting the audience to laugh or cry than they are with the humanity of their own characters, there’s always going to be that split between theater and life.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Max Shapiro, Richard Shay.