Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Seagull (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Anton Chekhov authored four of the greatest plays of the modern world. Just want to state that up front. His four major plays are seminal works of literature, with astounding and complex insights into the human condition. Each forms a challenge to any theatre company. Part of this challenge lies in their status as classics. Another is a nearly funereal tone so many companies feel tempted to adopt.

The Downtown Repertory Theatre deserves many a kudo for trying to avoid both these traps. Truly. Their production of The Seagull was startling in several ways, and (importantly) I found myself moved.

But it did fall into others, and to be brutally honest a few them them can squarely laid to rest at the feet of director Michael Bernardi. The main one is a bit subtle, and frankly would tend (I think) to be missed by a film director as opposed to a theatrical one.  The Seagull, like the rest of Chekhov, tends to have three general "types" of scenes making up most of the show, at least in terms of sound and movement. First are relatively "social" scenes between (usually) two or more characters trying none-too-successfully to communicate something important, or persuading folks to a certain action, etc. But there are also the "busy" scenes wherein so much is going on it feels daunting, intrusive, and yet for the most part pretty empty. These are in counter-point to the "quiet" scenes, in which characters (nearly always two of them) find themselves in moments of amazing intimacy, revelation, deceit, betrayal, realization, forgiveness, decision. These last types of scenes form the heart, the core of the play.

But the whole reason for the busy scenes is to make us long for the quiet ones! This is the kind of ebb and flow that turns a theatrical performance into something like music, something like dance, yet distinctly itself.

This got almost totally lost is all kinds of superfluous activity amidst the scenes that need the quiet.

Which is not to say giving the characters something to do, especially during some of the exposition scenes, is a bad thing! Not at all! But running round and jumping atop furniture, or constantly pacing around stage, leaping on top of another character--these do not help an actor speak the truth. It helps them avoid doing it.

The Seagull takes place in the country household of a famous actress named Arkadina (Gillian Doyle), who is visiting there for the summer with her lover the popular writer Trigorin (Andre Engracia Mello). Her son Treplev lives at the estate, without a job and given little real support from his mother, who radiates her diva-dom with every step and glance. Treplev wants to write something new, something avant garde, full of passion and truth as opposed to what he sees as the mediocrity drowning out life. He is very much in love with wealthy neighbor's daughter, Nina, who wishes to be an actress. But a full panorama of different characters move in and out of the estate. This summer, decisions are made that will bring all kinds of crises to a head.

Some members of the cast deserve singling out. Michael Clair Sinclair (Sorin) never had a moment on stage when I didn't believe in him. Not once. That part, of a lonely man retired from the civil service and full of regrets, could so easily end up as nothing but a bunch of quirks and ticks and attitude. Instead we saw a full human being, listening and seeing far too much, emotionally attached to the world that has disappointed him so much yet unafraid and startlingly not bitter. Color me very impressed!

Other members of the cast did not fare as well, although many showed quite a bit of talent. Most, however, lacked some important skills. The Downtown Rep has a wonderful courtyard it uses as a theatre, one with good acoustics overall. Yet I literally could not understand fully a quarter of lines spoken. Jordan Jude (Nina) has a very nice presence on stage and one can see why she was cast in this role, an hope-filled innocent at the mercy of her heart, who we realize is the title character. Or at least sees herself that way. She's not alone, which leads to the climactic tragedy. But for the first act especially Miss Jude does something most actors do wrong sooner or later--she emotes instead of acts, feels instead of does. To be sure she got much better in the second half (for the record, everyone did, almost). But I don't think she or Devon Armstrong (Treplev), talented as they both clearly are, end up well-served by blocking and direction that veers between sit-com and farce. It isn't that there's no humor in Chekhov, but it emerges as bittersweet and melancholy, not guffaws and caricature.

The central conceit of this production--setting it in some kind of modern day America (I think?) with a reality show's camera crews following the characters around--deserves praise for an attempt to shake things up. But honestly, it didn't seem to work. I don't mind doing something 'out there' with the classics, but honestly I didn't see what this idea accomplished (other than making a few moments of awkward blocking work). Even more importantly, it didn't make me feel anything more. By the second half, this distracting conceit seems to have vanished pretty much, and by the end seems gone completely. Nina and Treplev play out their final scenes in ways that worked, and left me understanding what had taken place. But without a fuller context to the whole thing, its dramatic punch grazed my jaw instead of dealing a body blow.

The Seagull at the Downtown Repertory Theatre will play at 7:30pm at Pico House in downtown Los Angeles, August 27 through August 31.For the record, I hope to go see more shows at this theatre and see what else the company can do.

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