A sad, comic journey from light to darkness in ‘The Seagull’

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s impressive production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” is remarkable in several ways, but most remarkable of all is how contemporary this 1895 play feels.

Nobody really lives the way Chekhov’s characters live – nor have they for a very long time – but the fate of men and women who are by turns foolishly idealistic, delusively ambitious, emotionally controlling, morbidly romantic and defensively distant will inevitably remind us of people we’ve known.

Robert Gibby Brand and Cheryl Weaver in "The Seagull" (Bob Paisley)

Tom Stoppard’s 1997 translation certainly has a lot to do with the work’s contemporary sensibility, but so do the actors in the MET production. Director Karen Paisley’s ensemble delivers generally strong performances and some of them are exceptional.

Chekhov’s play, which he considered a comedy, begins in the warmth and sunlight of summer and concludes in the icy rain of winter – a clear metaphor for the collective journey taken by his characters. It is, indeed, very funny at times, even as circumstances push some characters to a tragic fate. Foolish people can be quite amusing until their folly triggers fatal consequences.

The piece opens as young Konstantin (Coleman Crenshaw) prepares for a lakeside performance of his new play, with which he hopes to impress his mother, the visiting actress Irina Arkadina (Cheryl Weaver). Among the spectators are Masha (Jessica Franz), the estate manager’s daughter who is being courted by Medvedenko (Chris Roady), an impoverished school teacher, although she’s in love with Konstantin.

Also on hand are Irina’s lover, the famous writer Trigorin (Forrest Attaway), and her older brother Sorin (Richard Alan Nichols), who owns the estate. Dorn (Robert Gibby Brand), a doctor, is present, as are the estate manager Shamraev (Alan Tilson) and his wife Polina (Nancy Marcy).

Ashlee LaPine and Forrest Attaway (Bob Paisley)

Konstantin’s play is a surrealistic affair, performed by young Nina (Ashlee LaPine), an aspiring actress from a neighboring estate. Nobody can make any sense of the play, which Konstantin insists points the way to a new kind of theater that breaks from the trite traditions of his mother’s theatrical universe.

The relationships are a sort of kaleidoscope of dead-end romantic fantasies. Konstantin is in love with Nina, but Nina becomes enamored of Trigorin, who responds to her charms at the expense of his bond with Irina. But Irina, well aware of her lover’s wandering eye, exerts a hold on his affections that he cannot fully reject. Dorn and Polina, meanwhile, appear to have been lovers and perhaps still are.

In the end, nobody really gets what they think they want. Masha enters a loveless marriage with the school teacher. Nina and Trigorin become lovers but he eventually goes back to Irina. Konstantin becomes a published writer, although he struggles to find his voice. Nina becomes an actress in the provinces, although she’s not much good at it. The others try to continue life as they always have until they are rudely reminded that time never stands still.

Some of these actors deliver spectacular work. LaPine’s Nina follows an arc from naïve aspirant seduced by the allure of fame to a broken woman on the brink of madness. LaPine negotiates the transition with a note-perfect performance. With equal finesse, Weaver balances Irina’s pat imperiousness with her sheer desperation when she thinks she’s losing Trigorin.

Attaway, as Trigorin, comes up with another fascinating performance as an author and playwright who doesn’t believe in his own talents but is nonetheless compelled to write. His big scene with Nina, in which he explains the plight of being a famous but under-appreciated writer, is as memorable for its humor as it is for its subtlety.

When Attaway is matched with the excellent Weaver or the luminous LaPine, the production achieves a high level of artistry. Delivering superior support are Brand (who has racked up a phenomenal string of fine performances at the MET), Nichols, Marcy and Tilson.

Franz is memorable as Masha, Roady seems a bit forced and Crenshaw delivers a deeply felt performance that isn’t as specific as it needs to be. At times, the dramatic balance is a little out of whack, and some of the events on stage have minimal impact. Paisley makes a few missteps — music threatens to drown out the last line of dialogue in the play and she overdoes the sound effects — but for the most part she seems in command of the material.

This is a handsomely mounted show, thanks in large part to Jason Coale’s rustic scenic design and especially Shannon Smith’s costumes, which are the best-looking clothes I’ve ever seen at the MET.

At the end of the day, this production lingers in the mind. Chekhov’s characters seek meaning in art and happiness in love. They play a high-stakes game that can make them winners in the short run. But it’s a journey that inevitably leads to desolation.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2012 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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