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Modern, yet misguided: Don’t flock to Goodman’s Seagull

Society’s repressive power to confine individuals to a single role and to define them only in terms of that role is the heart-wrenching theme of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, re-imagined for the Owen Stage of the Goodman Theatre.

Photo: Goodman Theatre
Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) and his mother, Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher) talk to each other about their acting skills.

So much emphasis is placed on finding one’s sole purpose in life that it is easy to forget that humans are capable of more than a single occupation or role. Society’s repressive power to confine individuals to a single role and to define them only in terms of that role is the heart-wrenching theme of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, re-imagined for the Owen Stage of the Goodman Theatre in an excessively modern production by artistic director Robert Falls.

The setting is the country estate of Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), a well known Russian stage actress, and her declining brother Sorin (Francis Guinan), a retired civil servant. The estate is managed by Shamrayev (Steve Pickering), a retired lieutenant, and Dorn (Scott Jaeck) is a local doctor and family friend. These characters form the discontented older generation.

Though they have all led reasonably comfortable lives, the older generation confesses, in one way or another, to thwarted dreams they held in their youths. In the free and vibrant time of their youth, they could have aimed for such dreams, and now the characters experience regret at having abandoned these hopes. Sorin, confined to a wheelchair for most of the play, admits, “I stagnated for 28 years in a government office, but I never lived.” Dorn says that he had two aspirations as a young man, to be a famous actor or a famous writer, and neither of them were realized.

The younger generation is represented by Shamarayev and Polina’s daughter Masha (Kelly O’Sullivan), Arkadina’s son Konstantin (Stephen Louis Fischer), and Nina (Heather Wood), a local village girl, all of whom are just beginning to confront society’s power to confine and control their spirited individuality and romanticism. The clash between these two generations—the socially indoctrinated elders and the young eccentrics—begins when Konstantin presents a play he has written to all the members of the household.

The play is an absurdist, quasi-Platonist monologue, set 200,000 years from now, after every single living thing has ceased to dwell on Earth, and “the brutal, material struggle of individuals has ended.” And though the play seems ridiculous, we sympathize with Konstantin’s youthful romanticism and liberality of thought.

Things get complicated when Trigorin, an extremely successful novelist to whom Arkadina has taken a fancy, arrives and entraps young Nina with the allure of being a famous writer. However, he himself admits that, “important and famous is a completely stupid light” to him, and that he only carries on because his “single, obsessive thought is writing.”

In one of the most poignant lines of the play, Trigorin summarizes the plight of all those who are expected to define themselves in the world merely through the guise of their profession. He confesses to Nina, “on my gravestone it will say, here lies Trigorin, a fine writer, not as good as Tergenev,” as if Trigorin, the man, were not anything other than a fine writer.

For a play with such a haunting message, it is a marvel that Robert Falls could have created something so lifeless as this insipid, overly minimalist production. This translation by George Calderon, adapted by Mr. Falls, presents the younger generation as a group of bored, petulant youth with too much time on their hands. Such shallow rejoinders as, “you’re boring”, “why can’t you keep your mouth shut, or even “I wish you’d just go **** off,” are ubiquitous in this production. But the trouble is not the idea of mounting a contemporary version of The Seagull. Chekhov’s theme of individual estrangement is every bit as relevant today as it was when the play premiered in 1897.

The spare, modern set and the decision to have characters sitting on a bench at the rear of the stage when not in the scene, as if just waiting for something to happen, are all thematically sound. However, in literature, whenever we find brooding malcontents such as these, there is always the expectation that they will look beyond their state of disenchantment for just a moment and, in a gush of eloquence, remind us of what they might one day become. However, with this brutish translation, many of these young actors can find no middle ground between absolute desolation and absolute rage—there is only disenchantment.

Stephen Louis Grush’s performance as Konstantin and Kelly O’Sullivan’s as Masha epitomize what too often strikes me as paint-by-numbers acting. Cliff Chamberlain as Trigorin lacks the requisite charm of one who would seem to be enjoying the wit, fame, and society of a man of letters, but who, deep within himself, feels despondent and enslaved. He appears uncultivated and thoroughly unsympathetic.

The older actors could teach their younger colleagues a thing or two aboutsubtlety in stage acting. Instead of shouting every line past her interlocutors, Mary Beth Fisher deploys every appropriate feature of a modern Arkadina with great color. Francis Guinan is perfect as the pathetic (in the older sense of the term, not as used in this production), lamenting Sorin. Scott Jaeck as Dorn and Steve Pickering as Shamrayev also come off rather well, and Heather Wood, not exactly a shining young heroine, has a great deal more personality than her fellows.

The effect of this real-life generational divide is that, although we may feel inclined to sympathize with Konstantin and what he represents, we are more likely to respond, in words very much appropriate to the contemporary lexicon of Fall’s Seagull: “Grow up!”