The iconic Russian setting by master scenic designer Kevin Rigdon is all in place on the Alley Theatre's intimate Neuhaus Stage: birch trees, samovar, divan, ceramic stove, wide wood-planked floor. The physical properties bespeak the last days of the czars; the wispy linen dresses and men's Victorian suits by costumer Alejo Vietti conjure languid evenings along the Volga; the dappled lighting by Pat Collins reveals soft summer evenings by a dacha's lake. Atmosphere pours onto the stage. All that's missing is playwright Anton Chekhov.
The execution: This production, directed by Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd, leaves us cold as the requisite stuffed seagull that makes its appearance in Act IV. Chekhov's "between the lines" 1896 play, so seminal in the history of theater, goes all hazy and indistinct. Judging by the people around me yawning or asleep, the great play made no impression. The young characters Masha, Nina and Konstantin are clumsily handled, while the adult roles flounder without style. Although there are no minor roles in Chekhov, the subsidiary parts of old Sorin, frustrated Paulina and soigné Dorn (delineated by actors Jeffrey Bean, Kimberly King and Todd Waite) stand out in stark relief.
Seagull was Chekhov's first major theatrical success, after it was restaged by the Moscow Art Theatre, under the supervision of soon-to-be legendary director Konstantin Stanislavsky, whose acting theories probed deeply into the text. The success restored Chekhov's faith in writing for the theater, and he followed with instant classics Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard.
Seagull is wondrously transitory and ephemeral. As in all of Chekhov, nobody is truly satisfied with where they are. They all want something else. Actress Arkadina (Josie de Guzman), though successful in her career, now appears mostly in the provinces or acts for students, yet she's never more alive than when onstage. Her lover Trigorin (James Black), a famous writer, is racked by inadequacy at not being Tolstoy or Turgenev. Arkadina's brother Sorin, who is failing in health and owns the estate on which the play unfolds, desperately wants to get away to the city where he thinks he can "live." Arkadina's son Konstantin (Karl Glusman) desires to write the great modern play but is hopelessly entangled with aspiring actress Nina (Erica Lutz), who in turn is smitten with older Trigorin. In a reflecting subplot, timid schoolteacher Medvedenko (Chris Hutchison) pines for vibrant Masha (Rachel Tice), who longs for Konstantin. The play's a delicate round robin of failed romance and dashed dreams. More than one character exclaims that he or she is mighty unhappy. Young Masha dresses in black to show off her misery. Seagull may be the world's first contemporary play.
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Yet there's no consistency to this production, which veers wildly from comedy to unintentional comedy to strangely unaffecting. The grand, tragic parts come off as forced and melodramatic, which is clearly not what Chekhov intended. Perhaps of all his plays Seagull is the most difficult to pull off, since it's a teetering combo of comic and heart-wrenching effects that lie just beneath the work's surface. Dig too deep, you'll pass them by; if you don't dig deep enough, you'll never find them. Chekhov's drama occurs offstage, between scenes, in the characters' silences, and nothing must be played over-the-top or the whole piece crumbles. The tone's off at the Alley, with too many characters running breathlessly through the set as if looking to find (or lose) themselves. We get it twice the first time.
Houston theater is on a major Russophile kick: Classical's sterling Uncle Vanya; Main Street's affecting Tom Stoppard triptych Coast of Utopia; and now another Chekhov from the Alley. There's no such thing as too much Russian drama. Even when not very successful -- this Seagull never truly takes flight -- there's still plenty in it to emulate, like and learn. A shot or two of vodka beforehand would help.
Anton Chekhov's first successful play runs through March 4 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Buy tickets online at www.alleytheatre.org or call 713-228-8421.