By JOHN DeMERS
It is a great truth of the theater – and of all other art forms, in one way or the other – that what was once “revolutionary” becomes “classic” if it’s good enough to stick around. And then, for the rest of its life on any stage, the piece surprises us, going as we are to see a “classic,” with bits and pieces of how “revolutionary” it actually is.
Certainly Anton Chekhov is the poster child for such notions, the Russian author active at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in his four great plays for a wildly avant garde troupe called the Moscow Art Theater. Today, his comedy-drama The Seagull (now on display in Houston courtesy of the Alley Theatre) has all the costumes and mindsets of an earlier day. Yet it can still surprise us with how contemporary it is, still shake us up when it wants to.
If modern plays of this sort, for a variety of reasons starting with financial, tend to have only two or three characters, Chekhov paints with a broader brush. His plays, and The Seagull in particular, are set among larger groups. What’s more, in ways we don’t always understand, these larger groups reflect several layers of pre-revolutionary Russian society, from serfs and servants up to a forming professional class, with room for students and other “radicals” along the way. At times, you almost expect Lenin himself to stroll in, even if he’d be a 14-year-old. The voices are right, the attitudes are right, the dynamics are right in these groups – at least as best we non-Russians can tell.
The Seagull is almost entirely about love, but (with apologies to Valentine’s Day) the portrait isn’t pretty. At no point, and in no relationship, is anyone particularly happy unless they’re stupid or self-deluded, and seldom is anyone actually with the one they wish they were. There are echoes here of Chekhov’s most masterful short story, usually translated as “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” about a bored and boring family man’s life-affirming fling with a younger woman at a resort town on the Black Sea.
For this production, on the Alley’s intimate Neuhaus Stage, costumes and furniture are in place – but not the typical leafy backdrops that make some Chekhov productions feel luminous, even when they’re about loss, alcoholism, social upheaval and suicide. As such, this production feels stark, at times almost post-apocalyptic. It’s like a period piece caught on film, but with all the natural backgrounds painted out. It makes things tighter, more claustrophobic.
As directed with finesse and sensitivity for the brilliant language by Alley artistic director Gregory Boyd, the cast can be divided into two basic groups. The older characters are played by company stalwarts, and played with all the style and grace they’ve taught us to expect. James Black is perfect as famous writer Trigorin, whose careless infidelity with a sensitive younger woman dreaming of life beyond this countryside drives what plot there is, as are Jeffrey Bean as the blustery old Sorin, Josie de Guzman as Trigorin’s wife Arkadina, and Todd Waite as the local doctor named Dorn. Even when little is going on, the conversations among these characters start and stop with disconnects that prefigure Becket and Ionesco, and they are worth the price of your ticket.
And while the skill level simply isn’t as high or as uniform, there’s very much a younger generation in The Seagull, and Chekhov gives them a lot of the water to carry. These actors mostly seem up to the task: Erica Lutz as Nina who comes to identify with the title’s senselessly killed seagull, Karl Glusman as the doomed young writer Konstantin, and Rachael Tice as black-clad Masha (whom Chekhov gives one of his funniest lines ever, “I’m in mourning for my life!”).
You might take that line and argue that it’s true for many Chekhov characters, in both his plays and his short stories. Yet in this sterling Alley production, as surely in all the best ones going back to Moscow Art, these tales of “mourning” are etched with fascinating detail, clear-eyed sympathy for the human condition and plenty of raucous humor. And that will always strike us as more than a little “revolutionary.”
Photo by T. Charles Erickson: The Alley “Seagull” cast, with only one member of the younger generation.