The almost half century old Steppenwolf Theatre opened its new 600 seat Ensemble Theater with a beautiful new translation of Anton Chekhov’s historic play, directed by the translator Yasen Peyankov. The Seagull, directed by Konstantin Stanislavski for the new Moscow Art Theater, established the Russian theater as one of the finest in the world, and its performance style one actors throughout the world would seek to learn.
From its beginning in a Highland Park basement, Steppenwolf has developed it own style: gritty in-your-face performances, fearless acting choices, and bold non-traditional casting. The world-famous Steppenwolf style is still in evidence, though the faces are, by necessity, further apart, as the actors adapt to the demanding conventions of playing in the round.
In the play, Konstantin, the young hero playwright of Chekov’s drama, conveniently describes both Steppenwolf’s original church basement acting space where it began, and the new arena space it now uses:
“Here is a theater. No curtain, no wings, no scenery, just an empty space But it is a spectacularly beautiful empty space.”
The Seagull is a realistic tragicomedy. Chekhov brilliantly takes the rural comedy of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, with its lovers, tension between generations, and conflicts between masters and servants, and retrofits it with the heart and soul of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Like Hamlet, young Konstantin is without a father, and behaves peculiarly because of that lack. Like Hamlet, he becomes fixated on his mother, the provincial matinee idol Irina Arkadina, whose affections are now directed not toward her lost son, but toward the successful writer, Trigorin. Konstantin makes many and vain attempts to win his mother’s love or, at least, her attention – including writing, and staging a play, and attempting suicide.
If this were not enough, Konstantin casts Nina, the neighbor girl he loves, in his play. Love, and would-be, love is everywhere. Medvedenko, the school teacher loves Masha, the estate manager’s daughter, but Masha loves Konstantin, who loves Nina, who loves Trigorin, who is loved by Irina Arkadina, Konstantin’s mother.
But these makings of a traditional farce turn tragic.
The only character who gets the love he wants is Dr. Dorn, the country doctor, who seems to have had a liaison with every woman he has ever met. In fact, the play holds the possibility that the members of the play’s central love triangle – Nina, Konstantin, and Masha – could all be his illegitimate children, of course, unbeknownst to them!
The action of The Seagull takes place on the lakeside estate of Piotr Nikolayevich Sorin, a retired civil servant and brother of Irina Arkadina, a famous actress who is visiting for a holiday with her lover, the novelist Trigorin, and her son, Konstantin, sometimes called Treplev. Treplev, like many only children, tries to push his mother’s buttons. He rails against the bourgeois theater in which his mother stars, and denounces cliché plots and sentiments. Instead Konstantin yearns for “new forms” of expression. He spends the play’s first act staging a symbolist script of his own writing, starring Nina as the World Soul, an abstract spirit who lives on into the far future as the earth succumbs to a new ice age and everything dies. Arkadina snipes at the play throughout its performance, causing Treplev to suddenly stop the performance and storm off
Much of the rest of The Seagull concerns the chain of misbegotten loves. Sorin’s estate is managed by a man named Shamrayev, whose wife, Polina, has been having an affair with Dorn, the local doctor. Medvedenko, the local schoolteacher, wishes to marry Polina’s daughter Masha, but Masha loves Treplev, who loves Nina, who falls in love with Trigorin, Arkadina’s lover. Treplev, again acting out his frustration, shoots a seagull, and presents it to Nina as a bizarre gift.
Treplev then ups the ante by trying to shoot himself. His first attempt fails, the shot merely grazes his head. Meanwhile, Nina throws herself at Trigorin, presenting him with a medallion inscribed with a page and line number from one of his books. When he looks it up, he finds Nina has made herself a gift to him. Another bizarre gift. As Arkadina prepares to depart her brother’s estate, Trigorin and Nina plan a tryst in Moscow.
All this serves as prologue for the play’s fourth and final act, set two years later. Masha has married her dull schoolteacher, Medvedenko, who tends their child by himself. Treplev has published the occasional story. Trigorin has left Arkadina for Nina, then left Nina for Arkadina, but not before getting Nina pregnant. Nina now tours the provinces, eking out a living as a third-rate actress.
Sorin’s failing health has brought everyone back to his estate, Nina and Treplev reunite, but unhappily. He declares his undying love, but for Nina such things are impossible. Nina recites some of Treplev’s aborted apocalyptic play from Act I, the moment which opened the play, then departs.
For a long time The Seagull had baffled Stanislavski the director. But later he saw that
“Nina Zarechnaya had been the cause of the failure of Treplev’s talented play. She is not an actress, although she dreams of being one so as to earn the love of the worthless Trigorin. She does not understand what she is playing. She is too young to understand the deep gloom of the soul of Treplev. She has not yet suffered enough to perceive the eternal tragedy of the world. She must first fall in love with the scoundrelly Lovelace Trigorin and give him all that is beautiful in woman, give it to him in vain, at an accidental meeting in some low inn. The young and beautiful life is deformed and killed just as meaninglessly as the beautiful white seagull was killed by Treplev because of nothing to do. Poor Nina, before understanding the depth of what she is playing, must bear a child in secret, must suffer hunger and privation many years, dragging herself through the lower depths of all the provincial theatres, must come to know the scoundrelly attentions of merchants to a young actress, must come to know her own giftlessness, in order to be able in her last farewell meeting with Treplev in the fourth act of the play to feel at last all the eternal and tragic depth of Treplev’s monologue, and perhaps for the last and only time say it like a true actress and force Treplev and the spectators in the theatre to shed holy tears called forth by the power of art.”[i]
When Nina leaves, Treplev is alone onstage. He destroys all of his writing and then exits to shoot himself. This time he succeeds.
Much of The Seagull dwells on life’s minutiae, on games of lotto and petty arguments, on conversations about the theater and the evils of snuff. Director Peyankov adds new, fresh and exciting bits of stage business and pantomimic action to Chekhov’s play. The simple, yet dazzling, scenic elements created by Todd Rosenthal seem to transform the acting space into a Russian Globe Theatre – a rustic Russian folk motif on the floor, above which hangs an intricate sculpture of interlocking spheres forming a Russian “heavens.” Between the two spheres – heaven and earth – the play, and all future plays in the Ensemble Theater will exist. The costumes of Ana Kuzmanic mirror Peyankov’s translation –arising from, and existing in, the common space where late nineteenth century Russian and twenty-first century American styles overlap.
So if the new stage is glorious, the settings spectacular, and the costumes brilliant, what of the production itself as a whole?
Steppenwolf’s Seagull soars. Everything which had made the company one of the world’s most celebrated – the acting – is on full display, as fresh as ever, as daring as ever, and as inspiring as ever.
Fittingly, Jeff Perry, one of Steppenwolf’s original founders, leads a cast of veterans and relative newcomers, as old Sorin, the retired civil servant who regrets that he has never loved, or never even lived, for that matter. Perry masterfully balances the pathos and with the humor inherent in a Chekhovian figure. His performance typifies all the performances of this new translation: lyrical without being saccharine, heartbreaking without being maudlin, and humorous without being slapstick. The household fusses over him as he wraps himself more and more in his blanket of self-pity.
Sorin’s opposite is Dr. Dorn, well-travelled and beloved of women, many women. But Dorn has been foiled by the non- creativity of his life, as has Sorin. Consequently both he and Sorin see something of themselves in Treplev, and provide him with the encouragement his mother withholds. Ensemble member Eric Simonson downplays the doctor’s attractiveness to women, while never letting them completely out of his range. Chief among his current female fans is Polina Andreyevna (Sandra Marquez), the wife of the estate manager, Ilya Shamaraev, whose gruffness, as played by Keith Kupferer, fuels Polina’s hunger for the good doctor. Ensemble member Karen Rodriguez, gives the “mourning-for-my-life” Masha a new twist. As she shuns the advances of Jon Hudson Odom’s bookish schoolteacher, Semyon Medvedenko, she simultaneously rejects the disinterest she receives from Konstantin Treplev, the object of her misguided affections. Ensemble member Namir Smallwood as Treplev Konstantin perfectly captures the peculiar energy of an only child wrestling with the twin plagues of arrogance and loneliness. (The role was originally played by Vsevolod Meyerhold, Stanislavski’s young disciple.)
Treplev’s rival for the love of both his mother and of his girlfriend is the Boris Trigorin of Joey Slotnick. (Stanislavsky himself played the novelist.) His Trigorin is more Phillip Roth than Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald. This novelist’s calling card is merely his fame and celebrity.While both are in both in short supply among the folk in rural Moscow, nevertheless his fame is pure catnip to the area females. Slotnick downplays his literary excellence in order to fish. Finally, the indispensable Yakov, the all-purpose servant, is played with appropriate anonymity by Elijah Newman.
The women in Konstantin’s life are the heartbeat of this production. Arkadina, Konstantin’s mother, was originally played by Olga Knipper, the future wife of Chekov. The Steppenwolf production is blessed to have the services of Lusia Strus for the role. Strus exudes abundant sensuousness in everything she does, embarrassing her son to the max. Even Strus’ listening radiates diva “stardom”. When she is onstage, her very presence demands attention, and it is usually forthcoming. Only gunshots can challenge her stage dominance. Nevertheless Strus finds moments in which we can pity the boisterous and formidable actress/mother. Her rival in Konstantin’s life is the neighbor girl Nina, played by Ensemble member Carolyn Neff, with a beguiling mixture of innocence and slyness. Ms. Neff has previously stopped the show as Sonya for the Goodman Theatre’s production of Uncle Vanya. Sonya suffered because she couldn’t get the man she loved. In The Seagull Neff’s Nina suffers because she does get the man she loves. Neff’s Nina reveals to us in the final act how the young girl has aged and grown into another version of Sonya, seeking only to “endure” while “bearing her cross” The audience draws the obvious conclusion: suffering is unavoidable. Ms. Neff plays each kind of suffering with sensitive differentiation, yet always with panache.
The young Russian stage director Vladimir Nemirovich Danchenko summed up both the experience of the Moscow Art Theatre’s audience and the experience of the Steppenwolf Theatre’s audience:
I will stake anything you like that these hidden dramas and tragedies in every character of the play, given a skillful, extremely conscientious production, without banalities, can enthrall the auditorium.
So enthralled that
“after the third act there reigned behind the wings a kind of drunken atmosphere. As some one has aptly said, it as just as on Pascha/Easter Day. They all kissed one another, flung themselves on one another’s neck; ; all were excited with the mood of the supreme triumph of truth and honest labor>”[ii]
The Steppenwolf cast nd crew have earned a similar backstage celebration.
[i] Constantin Stanislavski, My Life in Art
[ii] Nemirovitch-Dantchenko, Vladimir, My Life in the Russian Theatre. (new York: Theatre Arts Books, 1936), p.190.