nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
September 30, 2009
"A comedy in four acts"—Those five words subtitling Anton Chekhov's The Seagull have baffled students of the theatre and ignited lively debates among Chekhov scholars for generations. For many there doesn't seem to be much comedic about this tale of melancholy and despair in which a group of multi-generational characters struggle with the vicissitudes and disappointments of life. For others, the comedy of Chekhov is the inevitable irony of life, an at times subtle comedy of manners gently ridiculing the hypocrisy and ennui of the leisure class.
For the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) and director Gia Forakis, however, the comedy in The Seagull is anything but subtle, for this bold production places the play squarely in the world of old-fashioned American vaudeville. A red proscenium curtain opens to reveal a cast in white clown makeup and outlandish vaudevillian costumes who proceed to ham their way through the piece with dell'arte-style physical and vocal indications and good old-fashioned pratfalls and slapstick. Not even the symbolic metaphor tying Chekhov's piece together escapes Forakis's lively reinterpretation. The titular seagull himself appears as a character in the play, strolling casually across the stage at various thematically charged moments throughout the piece in a white tuxedo and a large bird mask, and does cabaret and comic bits between the acts.
At the very least, the bold choices being made in this production do lead to some creative if deliberately absurd character choices—such as Jojo Gonzalez's transformation of the estate manager Shamrayev into an athletic ringmaster/impresario and Cindy Cheung's monotone sighings as a perpetually slouch-shouldered Masha. It's not a style that particularly lends itself to introspection—which in Chekhov there is lots of—and Forakis handles this problem by having those moments and passages of reflection taken out to the audience as asides throughout the play. Here the cast members break out of the house style in a more naturalistic approach, drawing a smart distinction between the characters' self-perceived hopes and fears and the more artificial masks they present to society. It's a theme that runs strong in The Seagull, and while you may not be convinced by the end of the night that this is the new paradigm for presenting Chekhov, Forakis has certainly found a way to examine this theme in an unusual and provocative way.
Forakis and NAATCO's ensemble of actors here have carved out broad cartoonish characterizations to inhabit the stage with lots of energy and considerable skill—and in this particular Chekhovian world, being cartoonish is not necessarily something to be avoided. Still, it's a very heavy-handed approach, and for all the mugging and yuks-per-minute, the relentlessly mechanized way these comedic bits are thrust forward sent me reeling by the intermission rather than laughing uproariously. In general, this so-called comedy feels more like a presentation of a comedic style in the service of an intellectual artistic point rather than an actual comedy itself.
But the point is made strongly. This production of The Seagull is first and foremost an insightful examination of theatrical form. Forakis has all but declared war on the naturalism and psychological realism that is the bedrock of much of what we've come to think of in this country as modern theatre, and The Seagull is perhaps the perfect vessel to target to fire a shot across its bow, since Stanislavsky's famous 1898 Moscow production was the flagship that in many ways started it all. This approach also blatantly reminds us that the issue of theatrical form is central to Chekhov's play—the young experimental playwright Konstantin tries desperately to create a mode of theatrical expression and finds himself pitted against his mother Arkadina, a practitioner of the old forms that have won her time-tested audience approval. Forakis has intentionally broad-stroked over the psychological ironies of these characters in terms of the juxtaposition of their stated and true intentions for a greater irony in Chekhov that is often underplayed—that the radical Method style of performance associated with Chekhov and Stanislavsky has become itself the status quo for doing Chekhov and winning time-tested audience approval.
But does what Forakis and company are boldly engaging us with constitute a new form? Not entirely, mostly because the style used is such an homage to well-worn comedic cliches that the performances don't fully push through into new theatrical realms (though to my mind the slightly lighter touch of Marcus Ho comes the closest to using the style to get inside Trigorin rather than push Trigorin out in front of him.) But by the fourth act something has to give, and when Nina returns to confront Konstantin at the end of the show the style and mood of the play has indeed morphed into new and uncharted territory.
It's a beautifully affecting scene played superbly by Peter Kim and Tiffany Villarin, who give us Konstantin and Nina in their rawer and more honest states, and much of the power derives simply from the stylistic hammering we have been subjected to previously. Here the play breaks wide open into something quite profound, bringing the whole piece together in a way that is appropriately hard to describe. By the end of the show I was once again reeling, and happy to have been put through the experience.