Theater

THEY SWOOP TO CONQUER

:The Seagull, as staged by Arizona Theatre Company, treats Anton Chekhov's play about love, art and lost youth with the utmost respect. But not with passion, or tenderness, or intelligence, or even the tongue-in-cheek humor that would have breathed some life into the classic. The play doesn't quite make it off the page and become an exciting piece of theatre.

The starting point for the late-blooming Chekhov's career as a dramatist, The Seagull, written in 1896, was the Russian author's first stage success after a couple of earlier, unsuccessful attempts. Billed by Chekhov as a comedy but ending on a decidedly tragic note, The Seagull presents its characters as an ensemble. Scenes combine and reshuffle the players, as each has a chance to shine briefly. The play appears straightforward--whenever a character speaks, the lines contain an immediate and literal meaning. But the overall theme is supposed to grow on you. With an accumulation of detail, there comes a point at which the play begins to illuminate itself; the whole is meant to be greater than individual roles and bits of action.

The primary plot concerns Konstantine, a young playwright, and Nina, the young actress he loves. Konstantine's mother, Irina, is a famous actress herself, and she has brought her own lover, Boris, a well-known writer, to her brother's country estate. The play opens as the characters watch an amateur production of Konstantine's newest avant-garde creation--starring Nina, of course. In the eyes of this bourgeois audience, Konstantine's play is a resounding flop.

By the time The Seagull ends, Nina has abandoned Konstantine for the older writer Boris, fled to Moscow to be with him and been abandoned herself once Boris decides to return to Irina. Irina and her son have fought an intense battle as she continues to dominate him, and Konstantine has discovered that he cannot separate his life and his work--both are hopeless. He tears up his manuscripts, and the play ends with his offstage suicide.

The Seagull is a difficult work to stage successfully because of its intricacy. One actor stronger than the rest will disrupt the continuity just as much as a weaker one, and in this production, the character parts came off much better than the principals. Pamela Holden Stewart as Masha latched onto a funny doomsday delivery of her lines that was refreshingly comic. And Apollo Dukakis as Irina's elderly brother was equally sure of himself in a subtly shaded role that could just as easily have descended into buffoonery.

The four lead actors, however, never managed to relate to each other on the same level at the same time. Jason Dietz as Konstantine did a lot of rushing around to indicate callow youth, but provided little of the character's artistic depth or hint that the part was based on Chekhov's own early, despairing years. Before he steps offstage and is heard shooting himself, Konstantine tears up his manuscripts--an act the stage directions specify should take two minutes. That's a lot of stage time, and in this production, it seemed twice as long, but had no dramatic impact. Dietz had done so much ranting and moping that the action appeared to be just another display of petulance rather than an ominous prelude to suicide.

Christina Zorich as Nina was adequate in the beginning as a pretty young woman longing for the theatre life of Moscow, but her transfiguration into a symbol of youth corrupted was unconvincing. Unfortunately, the symbolism of the entire play rests on the successful portrayal of Nina--throughout, she talks of seagulls, signs her letters with a seagull and even, in a presage to her ill fortune, receives a seagull that Konstantine has shot. Without a strong Nina to carry the theme, Konstantine's actions--and Chekhov's preoccupation with artistic struggle in the face of popular censure--make little sense.

The Seagull was directed by Olympia Dukakis, who has worked in the theatre on the East Coast for many years, and is known to a wider audience as a character actress in films. Her directorial skill kept the scenes moving crisply along, but the production as a whole ended up being shapeless, lacking momentum and pace. A clearer vision would have helped the parts to mesh. Randy Danson's egocentric hysterics as Irina, for instance, didn't complement Dietz's actions in their big mother-and-son scene. A lot of the production went like that--actors playing at each other rather than to each other, most of the emotion never hitting its mark. Stronger direction, and cohesion between the characters of Chekhov's insular world, would have raised The Seagull to a lively piece of theatre.

@7col:The Arizona Theatre Company production of The Seagull continues through Saturday, February 19, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe. For more details, see Theatre listing in Thrills.

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@hed:They Swoop to Conquer
@by:By Kathleen Ellison
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@jump:The Seagull
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Kathleen Ellison