Director Karen Paisley summarizes Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” this way: sex, death, love and marvelous clothes.
This week the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre opens the first local professional production of a play by the Russian dramatist in 11 years.
Yes, the denizens of Chekhov’s plays are miserable. But they can also be funny. Chekhov, who died in 1904 at the age of 44, considered “The Seagull” a comedy, and the translation Paisley chose — by British playwright Tom Stoppard — certainly reads funny on the printed page.
“One of the things we always talk about is, you gotta find the funny,” Paisley said. “Nobody’s interested in coming to the theater for two hours of wrist-slitting. … These great plays are like that. You can approach them as if they are sacred text. But I don’t think the playwrights ever intended for them to be that.”
Chekhov was a trained physician and prolific author who began writing short stories in his teens to support his family. But he’s also credited with four major plays: “The Seagull,” “The Cherry Orchard,” “Uncle Vanya” and “Three Sisters.”
The plays shared certain common elements, principally their depictions of slow-paced life on Russian estates in which the landed gentry dwells in a vaguely unsatisfying zone of restless boredom and deeply felt (but often repressed) longings.
“In this play everybody is in love with somebody who doesn’t love them back,” Paisley said as her actors gradually streamed into the theater lobby, which between shows becomes a jumble of props and furniture.
“It’s one big lost cause but worth pursuing nonetheless. It’s a tough play. It requires us to not be wimpy. It’s not for the faint-hearted, although I think it’s inescapably human. Most of us have known what it’s like to love someone who was in love with somebody else. And yet we didn’t stop loving them … and maybe they were made more human and more powerful because we loved them.
“I don’t think he’s being cynical about love. I think he’s very hopeful.”
In “The Seagull,” Chekhov mixes droll humor with tragedy and takes time to examine the nature of theater itself. Set on a lakeside estate owned by a retired civil servant, the play suggests that the pursuit of art may be as futile as the search for true love. And what we may view as human folly can have fatal consequences. Among the characters are a young playwright, a mediocre novelist and a fading actress.
Paisley, the artistic director of Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, said this play, like Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,” is a work that some of us may have read when we were students. But few of us have seen a satisfying production.
“When you read some of these in college, you go over them pretty fast and most of them are so bone dry that they’re kind of distasteful,” Paisley said. “I’ve seen ‘The Seagull’ and I have virtually no memory of it except waiting for it to be over.”
That means one of two things: The production was so boring that it made almost no impression on her. Or she found the staging so objectionable that she repressed any memory of it.
“But I kept thinking there must be more to it,” she said. “And I discovered there was more. And when I found the Tom Stoppard translation, I thought, ‘Well, this should be fun.’ And it is.”
In the world of theater, it seems that virtually any playwright of stature feels obligated at some point to produce his or her own translation of a major work by Ibsen or Chekhov, no matter how many came before. Thus, Missouri-born Lanford Wilson, who left an indelible mark on American theater with his own plays, translated Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” David Mamet, the master of four-letter vernacular, wrote a version of “Uncle Vanya.” In the 1950s Arthur Miller adapted Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.”
Stoppard, the Czech-born British playwright widely known as the author of such plays as “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and “Arcadia,” wrote his own version of “The Seagull” that was first staged in 1997. Working from a literal translation he commissioned, Stoppard conveys a level of humor and wit that makes it seem fresh when you read it.
Paisley has put together an impressive creative team for this show. Scenic designer Jason Coale, who has built sets for the Unicorn and the New Theatre, among other companies, has designed his first scenery for the MET since creating a visually striking set for the company’s production of “Copenhagen” in 2008. Newcomer Shannon Smith designed the “marvelous clothes.”
And the cast would be considered exceptional by any theater company in town.
Cheryl Weaver, last seen delivering a powerhouse performance in KC Rep’s “August: Osage County,” plays Irina Arkadina, the fading actress. Forrest Attaway, who has chalked up a series of fine performances at the MET and the Living Room, plays Trigorin, the novelist. Robert Gibby Brand, whose performances at the MET have been exceptional across the board, plays Dorn, a doctor. The excellent Richard Alan Nichols appears as Sorin, Irina’s brother and owner of the estate.
The big cast also includes MET veterans Alan Tilson and Nancy Marcy as the estate manager and his wife, and a group of younger actors who demand our attention: Coleman Crenshaw, Ashlee LaPine, Chris Roady and Jessica Franz.
One thing that’s been true of Paisley since she and her husband, Bob Paisley, founded the MET is her willingness to tackle the unfamiliar. She likes to direct plays she’s never staged before — or, in some cases, never actually seen before. To do so, of course, entails a certain risk. But Paisley seems undaunted by the possibility of falling flat.
“I love the idea of going into a space and making something,” she said. “Look, we’re sitting here in a room full of furniture. That was part of the reason I wanted to do it. We’ve done lots of shows I’ve never seen. Or maybe I’ve seen a yucky production. And if you see a yucky production to try to erase that from your memory.”
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