Touchstone Theatre

In 1989 Touchstone Theatre, previously located on the North Shore, made its Chicago debut at the Theatre Building with a splendid revival of The Seagull. Ina Marlowe’s sensitive staging fully registered the pathos of Chekhov’s first great play, an uncompromising portrait of unrequited love and thwarted ambition.

There was much to register. Chekhov’s most lyrical, plot-driven work depicts two young artists, aspiring writer Constantine and ardent actress Nina, who find their futures suffocated by their smug elders: Constantine’s life-sucking actress mother Irina Arkadina and Trigorin, a writer romantically interested in Nina who reduces life to antiseptic fiction. Jaded and disgusted with themselves, Arkadina and Trigorin use their broken dreams to justify their selfish acts, seizing on any pleasure to make up for lost joy–which is just what made them fail in the first place.

Constantine’s thoughtless killing of a sea gull in the first act is a sacrifice Nina takes all too personally–one reason why The Seagull ends with tragic decisiveness, as if it were an Ibsen play, not in the protracted fade-outs of Chekhov’s later works.

It’s a challenge to discover the inevitable under Chekhov’s deceptively aimless action, but Marlowe’s 1989 staging made The Seagull work like a prophecy. Five years later, she’s chosen to give it a crisply efficient staging based on a half-baked adaptation by her husband, Kendall Marlowe. Working from a translation commissioned from TriQuarterly editor Gwenan Tilbur, the Marlowes moved the action from turn-of-the-century Russia to a country estate in Maine circa 1994. The adapter and director’s note promises a journey “both radical and unerringly faithful,” noting that the “dreams, the heartbreaks, the unbending human will to endure belong to us, here in America, 1994, as much as they ever did to those fortunate persons of the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898.”

They belong to us because Chekhov wrote about these things so well that his work doesn’t need updating. This Seagull takes what ain’t broke and fixes it with a vengeance. It’s not just the updating of songs and allusions to cities and literature or the irrelevant On Golden Pond look that trivializes the script–it’s the incongruity between acting and text. The Method-ridden excesses of several key performances clash with Chekhov’s delicate mix of melodrama and melancholy, while his language seems oddly florid when transplanted to our more prosaic, laid-back era.

The characters’ eruptions of feeling seem unearned, at times verging on camp. Melinda Moonahan, so complex and mercurial as Irina in 1989, plays her here as petulant and mean-spirited; she abandons her Ordinary People imitation only during Irina’s brief reconciliation with Constantine, which is moving until mother and son share a semiincestuous kiss.

Though Mervon Mehta as Constantine is passionate when necessary, he plays the guilt-driven young man as if he knows his doom from the start and is only marking time till the bitter end. And though Rohanna S. Doylida sharply contrasts Nina’s early radiant enthusiasm with her later disillusionment, the contrast is almost too complete: it’s hard to feel Nina’s losses because Doylida doesn’t foreshadow her future, she just plays each unsuspecting moment. Kendall Marlowe gives Trigorin plenty of self-loathing, but there’s no glimpse of the charm that fascinates Nina. The supporting roles vary greatly but are mostly flat-footed.

The Seagull doesn’t have to be preserved in amber. But if you mean to transport it anywhere outside of Russia–something not even David Mamet dared to do with his pedestrian The Cherry Orchard–there’d better be a method to your move. This Maine hybrid lacks the urgency to seem anything more than a detour. Because this play is universal, leave it alone–don’t mess with the writer’s hard-earned realism and obvious intent.