Saturday, September 9, 2017

Catalyst Repertory takes us to hilarious and heart-wrenching mistakes by the lake in "The Seagull"

Fascinated like everyone else by sobering reminders that nature is still in charge, I happened to have as the last image on my iPhone before the start Friday of Catalyst Repertory Company's production of "The Seagull" a short video of the Angel of Independence monument in Mexico City. A tall structure of the type represented locally by the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, it was swaying metronomically from the effect of the huge earthquake hundreds of miles away.

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.
Casey Ross' direction is responsive to the Chekhovian pace. Opening night at Grove Haus, despite the inevitable distraction of the former church's stained-glass windows and the set's indications of a tight budget, conveyed the atmosphere as well. Life in the country pushes to the forefront card games, long walks, and fishing, but also flashes visions in restless heads of a more significant life. Loving the right person, pursuing the right career are matters that leisure tends to throw into high relief, often making it less relaxing than it should be.

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.
Eleven months ago in Carmel, Catalyst patrons got to take in Taylor Cox and Nan Macy in the much different son/mother conflict of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus."  Both actors benefit from the less heightened language of Chekhov's play. When they needed to rise to levels of shattering emotional distress in "The Seagull," the contrast from their characters' steadier moments (of which Treplev has few) presented them more three-dimensionally. Their long verbal duel after Arkadina has solicitously tended to Treplev's superficial head wound (from an ominous suicide attempt) was riveting, and set against their better selves.

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.
This brings up a risk that Chekhov cultivated: daring the audience to find his characters, in their banality and outsize passions alike, tiresome at length. The production fully embraces that risk, and the long, bitter dialogue between Nina and Treplev near the end prompts the thought: These people and their problems are tedious. I believe arousing such reactions in the audience is something Chekhov turned to advantage. Real people are, after all, often tiresome. I think this legacy can be seen in the works of two recently deceased American playwrights, among others: Sam Shepard and Edward Albee. (Who has seen even a good performance of "The Zoo Story" without wanting to scream?) We are fascinated by the people in "The Seagull" partly because they threaten to wear us down as well as one another.

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]