Show: “The Seagull”
Company: The Artistic Home
Venue: The Artistic Home (1376 W Grand Ave)
Die Roll: 16
The greatest writing advice I ever received sounds a lot more like discouragement. “If you can do anything else with your life,” a mentor warned, “go do it.” I recalled that moment several times during The Artistic Home’s intimate revival of “The Seagull,” a play during which young and old artists clash, and no one can dissuade anyone from his or her obsessions. Certainly, I could not be put off the creative life, despite its lack of simplicity and instant gratification. And neither can Anton Chekhov’s characters. Perhaps that is where the tragedy lies in this tragicomedy. One can never quit the dreams that haunt them.
Treplev (Julian Hester) is the son of famous actress Arkadina (Kathy Scambiatterra). He is trapped at her family’s country estate, has no degree or money of his own, and longs to step out from her shadow. While she stars in the type of melodramatic pieces that are popular in the 1880’s setting, he devises new forms of abstract theatrical experience, and asks his neighbor and love Nina (Brookelyn Hébert) to bring them to life. She does not understand the scripts, or his willingness to shoot a seagull on her behalf, but she’s willing to put up with his opaque genius until encountering Trigorin (Scot West), a well-known writer and Arkadina’s lover. His fame and glamour attract Nina, even though he vehemently assures her there is little happiness in his story-obsessed life. The two begin an affair that blurs the line between self-realization and self-destruction, razing the relationship between mother and son in the process.
Director Cody Estle uses the smallness of The Artistic Home’s space to great advantage throughout Christopher Hampton’s translation of “The Seagull.” There can be no clutter on the stage, so Mary O’Dowd’s props are kept to what is quite necessary: Treplev’s manuscripts, Arkadina’s umbrella, alcohol for the many who imbibe. The breadth of the estate must be completely communicated by the actors, who marvel at the beauty of an unseen lake, and despair at the lack of horses available to ride to the far-away train station. Estle also draws the eye to small moments between characters. We watch Trigorin warm to Nina’s presence during her performance of Treplev’s play. We see every excruciating movement as Treplev later tears his manuscripts apart in haunting resignation. We laugh at the well-timed intake of servant Masha’s (Laura Lapidus) snuff, a rebuke to the world that cares little about her unrequited love for Treplev. Estle captures the everyday rhythms of Chekhov’s play, from debates over desire to bombastic manipulations that result in Arkadina straddling Trigorin.
The performances are equally engrossing. Hester throbs with volatility, attacking anyone who praises his work with a bear hug. If his violent emotions lose power and focus in the fourth act, perhaps that is for the best. After all, Treplev is a defeated man by play’s end. Hébert portrays Nina as a naïf in the first half of the production, but her willingness to stare down the devil in Treplev’s script gives us a window into the challenging life she seeks and eventually accepts with defiant anger. Lapidus stands as a sardonic counterpart to the others’ youthful histrionics, her vulnerability a welcome surprise when she shares her secret feelings. By contrast, West as Trigorin projects a gentle nature that disguises his callowness, and Scambiatterra breezily commands attention any time she enters a scene. The adults of this world may be world-weary, but they’ve learned how to make life work in their favor.
Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s economical set design calls to mind the frame of a barn, giving the proceedings a rustic, country feel. But sheer curtains forming both stage drops and doorways lend a hazy gauze to the proceedings, offering opportunities to eavesdrop and let one’s fantasies run away with them. Sarah Jo White’s costumes bolster the period feel of the play, while Claire Sangster’s lighting reflects exterior twilight and harsh interior lighting, based on the scene changes. The more reality dashes each character’s hopes, the more earthbound the overall design scheme becomes.
For these unfortunate artists and lovers, mere dreams of fame and fortune and creative fulfillment are not enough. Life has no purpose without art, and they cannot do anything else. Maybe if they could simply farm or fish or work in an office, they’d be happier. But they’d feel lesser, too. And that self-knowledge spurs them on to euphoric highs and disastrous lows.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Intimate venue and strong ensemble work generate a haunting revival.
RATING: d20 – “One Of The Best”