The final thesis show of the Yale School of Drama’s 2011-12 season finds director Alex Mihail wrestling with Anton Chekhov’s classic comedy The Seagull, much as Jacob wrestled with the Angel: I will not let thee go except thou bless me. What might Chekhov’s blessing look like? I found myself wondering about this very question and have to say that waiting for the outcome provided, for me, a good deal of the drama of watching this production. The play itself is one of those signal works of the late 19th century that aimed to confront its audience with changes in the purposes of art, in this case theater. To call it a comedy, as Chekhov does, is to distort its audience’s expectations somewhat, perhaps leading viewers to find funny what they might not otherwise. But that designation also lets us know that the author himself does not take his characters too seriously and asks us not to as well. All of which is to say that the tone of the play is elusive, that outright silliness and comic vanity share the stage with poignant evocations of aging and frailty, that ruined expectations and sad resignation occur amidst family farce and romantic misprisions, and suicide.
From its very design, this production establishes its interrogatory tone—instead of an estate with a lake in the distance where young Treplev, aka Kostya (Seamus Mulcahy) puts on his symbolist play for a skeptical audience led by his actress mother, Arkadina (Brenda Meaney), Scenic Designer Kristen Robinson gives us a traditional interior, minus the fourth wall, that also is an exterior when need be, and is situated so that we, the audience, are seated in what should be the lake, while the distance, seen through the door when open and at times above the walls, is comprised of a theater with a long center aisle and rows of empty seats. On stage, a rather Godot-like tree remains in place throughout both Parts, most of the time hovering above the ground, and across the windows of the interior—which includes an upright piano and a desk—play various projections (Paul Lieber, Projection Design), including a wandering deer, snowfall, and dancing lights.
As we are self-consciously in a theatrical space throughout, one could say the play takes place in a sort of Chekhov set of the mind, asking us to wonder what it is exactly that realist drama symbolizes. And if that’s the sort of question that young, earnest and possibly deluded Kostya would ask, so be it. Which is another way of saying that the play feels like it’s very much in the mind of Kostya, that, as a would-be playwright wrestling with the need for “new forms,” he stands-in both as Chekhov’s and his director’s double. Indeed, Mihail never lets us forget Kostya’s centrality, allowing him to be present throughout the play, even for scenes he’s not scripted to be part of. Mulcahy brings to the role endless energy: he hovers, he witnesses, he reacts, he mimicks, flies into rages, pouts, and playacts an artist playacting being an artist. It’s exhausting.
That level of energy extends to the rest of the cast as well—as it must, since Chekhov tends to write sprawling plays in which people walk in and out and never quite come to saying what they mean, and when they do it’s easy to miss it because someone is always interrupting. The first half, in which the actors establish their roles, can sometimes be slow going, but in the second half our familiarity with them all allows things to sharpen up considerably. We have to live with these people a while to get anything from them.
As Arkadina, the leading lady, Brenda Meaney is a grande dame all the way, never letting us forget that, for Kostya’s mother (apt to start playing Hamlet’s mother apropos of nothing), she is always the central figure of every scene. Everyone else should be willingly eclipsed. Will Cobbs, as her increasingly decrepit brother Sorin, declines with a comic edge that keeps the character mischievous. Chris Henry plays successful and fatuous author Trigorin with perhaps more winning a personality than one expects; his best scene is with Masha (Carmen Zilles). As a single woman in love with Kostya, Masha has to spill her guts and keep herself buttoned up at the same time—Zilles does a capable job in a role no one under thirty should be asked to play. As the man she marries, because he loves her, Josiah Bania’s Medvedenko is a constant figure of fun, always good for a laugh. In the roles of Masha’s parents, Winston Duke and Sheria Irving flesh out scenes with, from Duke, a boisterous, life of the party feel (his “caught in a crap” anecdote is great fun), and, from Irving, a pointed pining for the ladies’ man Dr. Dorn (Max Roll, as dapper and jaded a country libertine as one could wish). Finally, Jillian Taylor as Nina, would-be actress, and muse to those dueling writers Kostya and Trigorin, matches Mulcahy in energy and achieves, in her final transformation, something extraordinary.
Which is to say: the blessing comes late, but it does come. When Nina reprises, at the end of the play, the grandiose speech from Kostya’s play that she delivers early in Part One, she suddenly renders the absurd lines with a passion that the intervening two years of hardship makes both poignant and transcendent. And then we get the moment I can’t get out of my head, the moment of pure theater: Kostya’s long walk up that central aisle, followed by the rush of a descending curtain. Bam!
Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull Translated by Paul Schmidt Directed by Alexandru Mihail
Yale School of Drama January 24-28, 2012