christine horne & eric peterson
“The theatre is dead… the audience is dying,” Konstantin declares in Robert Falls’ 2010 adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull, which Chris Abraham and Crow’s Theatre brings to the stage at the Canadian Stage Berkeley Street Theatre until February 8th, 2015. The young, emerging writer, Konstantin, scoffs at the Establishment, the popular melodramas that his mother stars in, calling instead for a new form of theatre, one that speaks in the contemporary voice and encourages critical thought and stirs raw emotion in the audience. He calls for a theatre that means something, a theatre that is necessary to its society, in the same way that so many theatre artists here in Toronto and across the country have abandoned the conventions of the mainstream theatres and seek to find new ways to make theatre relevant in a world that doesn’t seem conducive to theatre at all.
It is interesting, in this way, that Robert Falls and Crow’s Theatre would choose to remind those of us who do still sit in darkened theatres together, that the theatre is dying from the mouth of a character that was created over one hundred years ago. While Konstantin works within a new theatrical framework, the early Symbolist Movement, in attempt to capture what he perceives to be the human condition in his own time, Falls and Abraham instead revisit The Seagull, a play that has become part of The Establishment’s Canon, but present it in a way that seems to be speaking directly to us, in our our voices, of our own time.
In fact, from the moment Bahia Watson’s Masha exclaims, “I’m in mourning for my liiife!” with a ferocity of misery, but also a flair for the melodramatic, our century converges with hers and Abraham has us viewing 1896 and 2015 through overlapping lenses. In The Seagull Chekhov brings together a group of artists, intellectuals and aspiring artists, and places them on a Country Estate where boredom and isolation helps to fuel their insecurity, love triangles, hopelessness and desperation. Everyone is in love with the wrong person, and all this unrequited love breeds anguish and turmoil. Much of the action in this play is psychological. Each character is a unique product of his or her upbringing, environment and distinct personality, and the ways in which these characters interact with one another reveal how unhealthy psychological patterns can be inherited and can ensnare tortured people in self destructive behaviour.
The best example of this is Yanna McIntosh’s Arkadina, Konstantin’s mother, a famous actress and the lover of the illustrious writer Trigorin. She is regal and captivating, dramatic and easily bored, but as the play progresses it becomes increasingly clear that she is always playing her theatrical persona, in attempt to keep her messy, complex, insecure emotions at bay. At times she can conjure up passion, as an actor does, like when she begs Trigorin not to leave her for the young and sweet aspiring actress, Nina, but it is performative and manipulative rather than raw and vulnerable. Arkadina’s inability to truthfully connect with Konstantin ensures that she passes her own insecurities and feelings of failure, isolation and inadequacy on to him, which he internalizes until they haunt him to death. Tom Rooney’s Trigorin is quiet, aloof, discerning and lost in a mind that continually spins ideas for new stories. He is detached from Arkadina in the same way that she is detached from Konstantin. She pleads for his undivided attention and unconditional love in the same way that her son asks these things of her. Unlike Arkadina, who buries her weaknesses, Trigorin expertly uses his insecurity, self-loathing and restlessness to seduce young Nina, Konstantin’s love. The scene in which Rooney’s Trigorin, cynical, tired and frustrated with himself, masterfully opens himself up to Christine Horne’s Nina, a lovely young lady poised carefully in a brief moment where she shines with love of learning, hope for her future and belief in herself, is particularly compelling and beautiful. He will crush her, strike her down like the fallen seagull, but initially his seduction appears to buoy Nina up and provide her with the impetus she needs to leave an unhappy childhood home. Philip Riccio’s Konstantin, like Hamlet, is stuck inside his own head, where he is at the mercy of his own critical voice, one that likely sounds very much like his mother. He roams through the play, brooding, unable to find the human connection his heart and mind crave so much, either from a meaningful relationship with Nina, or with the audience for his writing.
Tony Nappo’s Shamrayev, the manager of the household, captures perfectly the unhinged ambiance of Chekhov’s world. Initially, Shamrayev is gregarious and seeks the attention and accolades of his peers, Yet, he is only self-interested, and hungry to control others and he is quick to abandon all pretence and to reveal a violent and wrathful anger whenever he feels threatened or disrespected. He is unpredictable, deceitful and his actions have consequences- like dominoes falling- on everyone else around him. His wife, Polina, played by Tara Nicodemo, tiptoes around him and behind his back in dalliance with the charming, roguish Doctor, Dorn, played by a very suave Tom McCamus. His daughter Masha creates a rough shell for herself, a rude, aggressive, rebellious facade, in which she tries desperately to hide how deeply she cares and how much she feels. She tosses her husband, the schoolteacher Medvedenko aside so brutally I almost expected Gregory Prest to start singing “Mr. Cellophane.”
The character in the play who shows the most earnestness, the most kindness and honesty toward his fellows is Sorin, Arkadina’s older and infirm brother. He is played by Eric Peterson, who seems to expose his own heart to us in every breath he takes. Yet, not only is Sorin dying, suggesting perhaps that such goodness is a relic of the past, but he sees his life as having been a disappointing failure. He was too careful, he didn’t take risks or follow his dreams. He was “the Man Who Never Did” and he is filled with regrets. Shamrayev, however, is robust and, at least outwardly, boastful of his experiences. That is the tragedy and the unfairness of life in this Chekhov play.
Chris Abraham’s production is so exquisitely well acted that the audience is able to feast on Chekhov’s rich subtext and it becomes a play about ideas as much as it is about relationships. The World of The Seagull destroys dreams and idealism and preys on those who are sensitive. The stronger learn to protect themselves with carefully constructed facades, but these prove difficult to maneuver around in manners of the heart. Julie Fox’s set is stripped down, revealing rather than concealing The Berkeley Street Theatre, and so too does Fall’s adaptation and Abraham’s direction feel like the stripping down of Chekhov’s story, and his characters, so that we can see more of their bones… of their souls. He doesn’t let them hide quite as easily, here in 2015, so it is easier for us to see ourselves and Our World in them.
The Seagull is currently closed.