'Seagull' review: Blurring the lines of fiction
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'Seagull' review: Blurring the lines of fiction
Elevator Repair Service’s Chekhov revival has promising ideas about art, experimentation and truth, but the production inevitably falls flat, our critic writes.

by Maya Phillips

NEW YORK, NY.- If only I could find someone who loves me enough to gift me a dead bird in a brown paper bag.

I jest, of course. The wounded young protagonist who delivers this confounding gift in Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” communicates his thoughts and feelings through wild symbols — “new forms” of art, he says — like this particular one of the avian variety. Theater troupe Elevator Repair Service — known for its ambitious, innovative takes on classics like “The Great Gatsby” (“Gatz”) — attempts to meet that challenge in its latest work, “Seagull.”

But this highly stylized contemporary production, which recently opened at NYU Skirball in a nearly three-hour production, feels like a series of ideas that never quite cohere. The beginnings of those ideas are promising, though: the toppling of the fourth wall, the meta references to the original text, the vivid tonal changes and the comic recasting of the play’s characters, each of them living through their own sad, ironic farce of a life.

Let’s begin with those clowns. Konstantin (a wooden Gavin Price) wants to be a great writer but is too busy producing incomprehensible symbolist plays, at least that’s what his mother, Irina (Kate Benson, a bluster of affected melodrama), thinks. A vain former actress with a vicious streak toward her son, Irina has come to stay with her sick brother at his country estate, and she has taken along her boy toy, the famous writer Boris Trigorin (a compellingly aloof Robert M. Johanson). From the other side of the property comes Nina (Maggie Hoffman, magnetic), a young woman who wants to escape her circumstances and become an actress.

One may need a map for the various romantic entanglements: Semyon (Pete Simpson) loves the depressed, coke-snorting Masha (Susie Sokol), who loves Konstantin, who loves Nina, who is enamored with Trigorin, who is attached to Irina. And Nina’s mother, Paulina (Lindsay Hockaday), is married to Ilya (Julian Fleisher) but is having an affair with former playboy Dr. Gene (a delightfully quippy Vin Knight).

“Seagull,” directed by the group’s founder, John Collins, opens with a meandering curtain speech, charismatically delivered by Simpson as his real-life self, and ends in the world of Chekhov, where Simpson is now Semyon, a poor lovesick teacher. Simpson cracks jokes and rattles off (real and fictional) information about the Skirball stage, letting the audience know that the line between reality and fiction is needlepoint thin, although to what end is unclear.

The breaking of the fourth wall happens mostly in the first several minutes, although this play is being marketed as interactive, part “chat with the audience,” as if the entirety of the show will be meta. The production seems to want to reach toward some message about art — particularly experimental art, especially experimental theater — as when the group cheekily pokes fun at itself in Simpson’s opening speech. “If ERS is known for anything,” Simpson says, “we’re known for our livestock, wallpaper and violent dance.”

I’m sorry to report that there’s no livestock or wallpaper, but there is a bit of dancing (whether you would deem it violent depends on your particular disposition). And besides a few references to the actors — not as their characters, but the real actors themselves — the production’s self-aware spoofing unfortunately falls to the wayside.

The attempts to deconstruct Chekhov’s work extends to the set by Dots, the design collective. Lined up folding chairs, sat on by the cast, and a table with tech equipment are juxtaposed with a piano, where Konstantin broods, and a fraction of an old Russian dining room, just two perpendicular walls, decorated with framed paintings, a table and chairs in the center, where the characters sit to eat and play cards.

And then there’s that dead bird.

Dead feathered fowl! Suicide! Ruination! Unhappy marriages! Unrequited love! Festering resentment! “The Seagull” doesn’t seem like the kind of play that would tickle your funny bone, and yet Chekhov himself considered it a comedy. Most productions cast it as a tragedy (especially after seminal Russian actor-director Konstantin Stanislavski reinterpreted it as such in one of its first productions).

Collins opts for both, going all in on comedy in the first half and making a daring turn to tragedy in the second. So Masha isn’t the cool goth pining after the dejected artist but a mopey dork in knee-high compression socks who drags herself across the stage while the sad-sack Semyon shuffles along after her. Konstantin isn’t a misunderstood virtuoso but a solipsistic hipster of an artist with serious mommy issues. In the final scene of the first act, Gene, having comforted two distraught characters in a row, comically declares, “You’re so upset! You’re all so upset!”

And yet, despite its playful humor and antics, the show often falls into lulls when it’s mostly just performing a rote version of Chekhov’s piece.

It’s not until partway through the second act that the show’s unforgettable shift occurs. The actors freeze, posing in an almost suffocating silence for several minutes. The set darkens, and fog unfurls across the top of the stage. None of the actors speak, but we hear them reading their lines in voice-over. We see Nina slumped in a chair in the corner, Irina sitting in a commanding pose front and center, arms spread out on either side to rest on the chair backs, her legs brazenly crossed in front of her, and Ilya leaning against a pillar, head drooped to the side. The effect is haunting when paired with the disembodied voices. Instead of trying to seamlessly incorporate both the dark humor and the woe, the production calls attention to each individually.

Chekhov’s play lends itself to dismantling and comic scrutiny. Take Aaron Posner’s postmodern remix, “Stupid _______ Bird,” which actually manages to pull off the balancing act that the Elevator Repair Service’s “Seagull” struggles with, splitting the difference between a dutiful replication of the text (or at least parts of it) and an irreverent sendup of prevailing ideas, themes and executions of the beloved work. Posner’s ambitious, if pretentious, play manages it a bit better through an almost Spartan-level commitment to its conceit, from script to stage.

“Seagull” is milder in its execution of its ideas, although it would benefit from committing more to its experimental aspirations and making its insights about art clearer. And it could further blur the line between performance and reality as it does in the opening scene, allowing the actors to speak more freely, to improvise, to share parts of themselves even as they inhabit their characters.

This production may get its audience thinking about art, experimentation and truth but can’t quite see those thoughts through. In the play Konstantin declares that we need new forms. This production may have inadvertently provided the answer: Only if the artist is up to it.


Through July 31 at NYU Skirball, Manhattan; nyuskirball.org. Running time: 2 hour, 50 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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