The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, translated by Paul Schmidt. Directed by Frank La Frazia.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Rehearsal Photo: Leandra Sharron as Nina and David Lane as Trigorin; photo supplied
"The main thing isnít being famous."
For Main Street Stageís final production at their now historic space on Main Street in North Adams they have chosen to present a somber comedy by the master of Russian humor, Anton Chekhov. "The Seagull" could be considered a modern situation comedy and that is how director Frank La Frazia has chosen to present it. He has moved the action to Berkshire County, changed very little else and in a move to make relevant to a local, modern audience the sensibilities and concepts of an earlier age in a place, far, far away he has found within that idea an ideal way to introduce old thoughts to new people.
In a very contemporary way he has jetisoned the usual laugh-track and allowed each audience to find their way into the silliness, the romance, the heartbreak, the cross-cultural relationships. What may be funny to me, I discovered, might not tickle anyone else in a sold-out house. Similarly what struck some college students as hilarious left me oddly touched and moved. This has always been the way with Chekhov, by the way. The darkness of Russian attitudes hits different people in different ways. Transplanting this unique crop of depressive folk into the landscape of rolling hills and joyous cultural goings-on, tips the reserves of bile, gall, funny-bones and brain-fugue states overboard for a few hours. We try to find the locale and come up with west Pittsfield, Onota Lake and wonder how some of these folks can afford the view-tax. Then we realize the oddity of such thoughts and realize that if nothing else has depressed them, this surely would.
The story is a curiously vulgar one for Chekhov. Irina is an aging star with a more then adult son whose thirst for acknowledgment leaves him desperate enough to commit suicide. Konstantineís clumsy attempt to either die or get sympathy results in his losing the woman he loves, Nina, to his motherís lover Trigorin. Left alone in his Berkshire dacha on the lake he is haunted by Masha, the recently married, drug and vodka addled daughter of the farm-servants who work for his family. Her mother Paulina wants the rakish local doctor Eugene to carry her off, save her from her boorish husband but his distinctly gay demeanor only reads as "womanizer" to the disturbed woman and she gives up her dream. Thatís the surface story and if it smacks of a "Desperate Housewives" aspect you really shouldnít be surprised. Thatís Chekhov.
Director Frank La Frazia has selected the Berkshires for this transplanted play, originally presented in Moscow in 1896, it was a colossal flop, but production two years later directed by the great Stanislavski turned the tide, for this man brought a psychological reality to the stage with this play and the audience grasped the internal as well as the external struggles of these characters. You have the locals, straightforward, simple, yet taken to a higher plane by the city people they work for. You also have the "week-enders" who vacation in their second homes with famous friends who cannot seem to leave the locals alone. Sounds like my neighborhood; does it sound like yours as well?
La Frazia has used the updated language of the translation to make the play as American as apple pie, but Chekhov fights him for the Russian emotional realities. These people have death and despair as their mates. These people define the work gloom. And yet they cavort, critique, run the lives with abandon and even break into song knowing that they cannot carry tunes. This is a bit less Berkshire and a lot more Ukraine. His cast, as the actors at Main Street Stage always do, perform with an immediate sense of truth and reality and this does aid the spatial transition.
As Konstantine, the anti-hero of the play we have Jed Krivisky.His would-be writer, stalled within the twin shadows of his stage-star mother and her novelist lover, is a staggerer, a mutterer, a bomb-fuse ready to ignite knowing his glow will come from within a minor bomb. He plays with sensitivity and a genuine grand passion that is sublimated into a gesture, a paper-toss, a bowed head. Nine, the young woman he loves, is the very reality-related Leandra Sharron. Her very tall young woman would stick out in any crowd and here she is a stand-out as well, her non-acting responding to the description of her characterís acting ability perfectly. She is most believable and when she comes into her emotional own in Act Four she is delicious, just what the men in her life have expected her to be all along.
Barby Cardillo plays Irina, the actress/mother. She is sharp, plays with angularity and keeps her audiences (onstage and off) on edge with her changeable nature. She does all this with a large voice, big eyes and a hefty bosom. She is wonderful to watch. Her lover, Trigorin, has a marvelous interpreter in David Lane. Seemingly ordinary and uninvolved, when his inner worm turns in Ninaís direction he morphs into someone else.
Wendy Walraven is a sensual and sometimes hard-to-take Masha. Playing the indifference to her husband with a naturalness that astounds she also manages to make her barely suppressed passion for Konstatine almost too hot to handle. Jack Sleigh is a facinating Dr. Eugene Dorn, hard to pin down, hard to comprehend, compeltely captivating. Todd Hamilton is too real as Simon, the abused husband of Masha. By the end of the play, seeing what love can make of an intelligent man, it is hard not laugh, if only to protect our own fragile psyches.
Kelli Newby as Paulina has exellent moments in a role that is less rewarding, I suspect, than some of the others and Ross Jacobs as her husband brings a new level to boorishness. Rounding out the cast as Peter, Irinaís aging and ailing brother, is Eric K. Auld who turns in a surprisingly interesting performance. He has some of the best comic moments and some of the finest tragic ones as well.
The production is fine with a workable set by Juliana von Haubrich, logical costumes designed by Vanessa Phelon and excellent lighting work by Jeff Roudabush. Michael Trainor and his crew manage the Act Four windstorm brilliantly.
Frank La Frazia may be right about setting his version of the play in the neighborhood. We may have enough Russians in our backyards, or our own backgrounds, to make this transition from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first very plausible indeed. At least, for as long as the play is on our lakeshore, we can enjoy the trials, tribulations and hard-luck humor of a great writer from a very personal perspective.
The Seagull plays through May 22 at Main Street Stage, 57 Main Street, North Adams, MA. For information or tickets contact the box office at 413-663-3240.