The metronome divides time in adjustable units to aid musicians. We invented time and devices to measure it to order our response to natural cycles and events. Inevitably, they now chop up our workaday lives to the millisecond. The world of "The Seagull" lies in the peculiar suspension of time that Anton Chekhov was so good at populating.
Set by a Russian lake at the turn of the last century, "The Seagull" situates a few seismic events in the midst of anxiety about what to expect from the passage of time. The play is saturated with the sense that things are happening elsewhere or in a vaguely sensed future— or were missed in a regrettable past. The characters nurture fleeting hopes and frustrations in a superficially idyllic setting far removed from the original timeless paradise: Eden before the Fall.
|Would-be actress Nina, thwarted by her family, is fascinated by the bitter idealist Treplev.|
Treplev (I'm using the program's versions of character names) is a morose, struggling writer attempting to break free of his actress mother's eminence by trying to realize new artistic forms. He may have a smidgen of talent, but he has no resources and not much of a foothold on life. Arkadina (his mother's pretentious stage name) is vain about her importance in conventional theater and fixated on the trappings of success, which include a prolific writer, Trigorn, whom she's taken on somewhat anxiously as her young lover. Visits to her brother Sorin's country estate accentuate her buoyant self-regard, in contrast to Sorin's dour semi-invalidism, represented well (though sometimes inaudibly) by Dennis Forkel.
|Always "on," Arkadina holds forth expansively, as Dorn and Masha listen.|
Thomas Cardwell, trailing clouds of glory behind him as the debonair Trigorn, projects the self-confidence of a man accustomed to trimming his sails to the prevailing winds. Someone once said, if you can fake sincerity, you've got it made. Cardwell's Trigorn is a master, no more so than in a long dialogue with the ingenuous would-be actress Nina, played with admirable delicacy, veiling fierce desperation, by Ann Marie Elliott. Strongly discouraged from pursuing her dreams by her father and his second wife, two unseen characters of formidable influence, Nina latches on to Treplev's fey avant-gardism at first, despite her well-grounded sense that the figures he sets up for the stage are lifeless. His mood swings become truly alarming, and given Nina's misadventures after leaving her hostile parents, fully shatter her.
|Treplev works under a dangerously intense light.|
In Nina's full-spectrum meltdown, I also found notes appropriate to many portrayals of Ophelia's mad scene in "Hamlet." Elliott credibly presented a pulverized personality, like Polonius' daughter distributing flowers. There are a few outright indications of Shakespeare's masterpiece in "The Seagull" that have been noted by others before me, including direct quotes. The parallels, tweaked just enough and spread around different characters to avoid parody, are too plentiful to go into here. But they are there from the first scene, when the lovelorn schoolteacher Medivenko, played with exquisite awkwardness by Bradford Reilly, asks the bored Masha (Emily Bohn) why she always dresses in mourning clothes. When we first see the main characters in "Hamlet," the question of the hero's persistent black garb is also raised.
"The Seagull" also has a Polonius character, the physician Dorn (played with smug sensitivity by Craig Kemp). Because this is a comedy, believe it or not, Polonius survives, his good advice consorting easily with his fatuousness. And in Cardwell's Trigorn, more than a few accents of the smarmy, masterful King Claudius are displayed. In the staging of a fraught conversation between Arkadina and Trigorn, with the aging actress clinging to her lover's leg, I felt I was seeing in satirical terms Hamlet's conception of his mother's pathetic devotion to the usurping king.
Ross took chances with the play's foundation in comedy, but they always worked. Antony Nathan's Shamrayeff and Kyrsten Lyster's Paulina are the obstreperous servants of comic tradition. In this production, Treplev's shooting down of the gull has the artlessness of cheap farce about it. The symbolism he attaches to his act is thus firmly undercut by the ridiculousness of his self-delusion as a world-changing artistic innovator. He's a nebbishy Hamlet fit for a revenge comedy, a one-man circular firing squad.
The Earth continues to move, as it always does, the Angel of Independence sways upon her foundation, and there is no world for us without time and its catastrophes. It may not take a gratuitously shot and stuffed bird to remind us of that, but "The Seagull" helps.
[Photos by Gary Nelson]