A group of six is seated around a round table on the left. The floor is inlaid wood. On the right, an older man is lying on a chaise lounge, while a younger man stands next to him, looking concerned.
Seagull at Steppenwolf Theatre Credit: Michael Brosilow

“Here is a theater. No curtain, no wings, no scenery. Just an empty space.” Konstantin Treplev, the young and hungry artist manqué in Anton Chekhov’s Seagull, intones these words before the disastrous and abortive premiere of his play-within-the-play for his family. But at the Saturday opening of ensemble member Yasen Peyankov’s production at Steppenwolf, it sure felt like a clear-the-throat, point-to-the-room-around-you moment. 

Through 6/12: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 2:30 and 7:30 PM; also Wed 5/25-6/8, 2 PM; Sun 5/29-6/12, 2:30 PM only; no shows Sat 5/14; open captions Thu 5/19, 7:30 PM and Sat 6/11, 2:30 PM; ASL interpreted Sun 5/22, 7:30 PM; audio description and touch tour Sun 6/5, 2:30 PM (touch tour 1 PM); Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org, $20-$88.

The room in question is Steppenwolf’s new Ensemble Theater (officially, the Ensemble Theater in Honor of Helen Zell, because multimillion-dollar complexes require generous donors), and it happens to be in the round. So: No curtain. No wings. Pointedly, the benches onstage for Treplev’s family are first set up for a proscenium seating arrangement, then reconfigured for  in the round. But there is scenery in Treplev’s play, where his beloved Nina is first raised up from the wooden floor on a circular platform, and then encased in a white lattice cagelike structure that descends from the ceiling. 

It’s an odd moment, and one that encapsulates some of the incongruities in Peyankov’s staging. (He also translated and adapted the script; according to a program note from co-artistic directors Glenn Davis and Audrey Francis, he’s been working on it for 15 years.) Why would Treplev talk passionately about the importance of the empty stage, only to deploy mechanical contraptions? Is it to show us that he lacks the strength of his strongly worded convictions? Or is this staging choice to reassure the audience that semi-fancy stagecraft is still on tap in the new home? The former could be interesting to explore, but the latter gets in the way.

In truth, there’s often a sense in this play that Treplev (Namir Smallwood) rails about the importance of new forms as a way to take revenge on those he sees as artistic sellouts—namely his actress mother, Irina Arkadina (Lusia Strus), and her lover, the popular writer Boris Trigorin (Joey Slotnick). By contrast, Nina (Caroline Neff) sincerely idolizes both Arkadina and Trigorin. Not that it does her much good. Masha (Karen Rodriguez), the daughter of the caretaker for the country estate where the action unfolds, carries a torch for Treplev, while the dull schoolteacher Semyon Medvedenko (Jon Hudson Odom) walks miles to court Masha despite her barely concealed contempt for him. Masha dresses all in black because she’s “in mourning for my life.” (Aren’t we all?)

This is a play where nobody’s fully satisfied, not even the seemingly self-satisfied Arkadina (played to the brassy hilt by Strus, making a welcome return to Chicago, where she cut her teeth with the Neo-Futurists and Peyankov’s European Repertory in the 1990s). The adaptation by Peyankov feels contemporary and sharp, with acidic to-the-gut lines that land when they need to. Neff is a cooler and steadier version of Nina than the fluttery naifs of other productions I’ve seen, where the impulse to play the doomed seabird of the title colors everything too soon. We can almost believe that Neff’s Nina, even with all her vulnerabilities, will somehow find a way to get by, even if it means selling out her own values. Or perhaps she always was more in love with the possibilities of fame offered by Arkadina and Trigorin’s careers than the reactive Angry Young Man posturing of Treplev.

Generational differences are present in the casting. Smallwood, Neff, and Rodriguez are newer members of the ensemble, and it’s a pleasure to see them in the company of cofounder Jeff Perry (who plays Sorin, Arkadina’s querulous brother and owner of the estate) and longtime ensemble member Eric Simonson, who plays country doctor Dorn, the one person who genuinely enjoys Treplev’s play. (Scott Jaeck takes over Perry’s role beginning May 24.) 

But even with the intimacy afforded in the undeniably lovely and comfortable new theater, there is emotional distance in this show and a presentational quality to moments that should be as stripped-down and accessible as Peyankov’s text. Some of that is the nature of the (feathered?) beast with this play, which always lodges uneasily between tragedy and comedy—a state of affairs implied by the poster, featuring a cartoon bird with a toy gun at its head and a banner reading “BANG!!!” spilling out of the barrel. Everyone is slightly out of sync in the story, but that doesn’t mean that the actors should feel like they’re in different plays, which sometimes happens here.

I think it again goes back to our not having a clear idea of Treplev, who is the catalyst for much of what happens or doesn’t happen. He is beloved by Masha (and at least for a time, by Nina). His tragedy, perhaps, is that he cannot see the former at all and cannot see the latter for who she really is. 

Smallwood’s Treplev nails the self-pity and inchoate rage inside. But if we don’t get a sense of the life and pleasure he derives from trying to create even his clumsy attempts at “new forms,” we’re left with a bit of a void, and Peyankov’s staging hasn’t given us that yet. He doesn’t seem to fully trust that we’ll be able to hold both sides of Treplev in our minds. In that way, the rising platform and descending cage in Treplev’s play are perhaps appropriate metaphors, after all. This is a Seagull striving to have it both ways: celebrating Steppenwolf’s past and pointing to its future, yet feeling a little trapped between the two.