Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Theatre AUM: "The Seagull"

Theatre AUM has an established history of programming a wide variety of productions from World Theatre, so it is not surprising that director Mike Winkelman is staging Christopher Hampton's robust 2008 translation of Anton Chekhov's 1895 The Seagull, one of the seminal plays of modern theatre.

Set in a rural Russian country house in the late 19th Century, The Seagull is no nostalgic reminiscence of a romantic past; in fact -- as with most great literature -- its universal human subject matter showing family relationships, complications of unrequited love, career challenges, financial obligations, individuals who are so self-absorbed that they ignore the needs of others, suicide, idolizing celebrities, attempts at finding new methods of artistic expression, and avoidance of facing our demons, are as resonant today as Chekhov shows in his play.

With an ensemble of fifteen veteran and unseasoned actors, and played on an effectively minimalist set designed by Karen Licari, Mr. Winkelman addresses the many topics listed above, doing so through clear delineation of plot complications and characterizations. And so much of the action depends on things that are not directly stated, that the actors must depend on the "subtext" underlying the dialogue that determines their behavior and their fraught relationships.

The plot is complicated: a wealthy yet stingy famous actress Irina [Kate Saylor] returns to her brother's estate with her lover Trigorin [Tony George], a popular writer; the aging brother Sorin [David Wilson] suffers from ill health, and is looked after by Dr. Dorn [Jay Russell]. Irina's son Konstantin [Josh Williams] has written an avant-garde symbolist play for her to be performed by Nina [Savannah Brown], a young neighbor he adores and who idolizes Irina.

The performance turns disastrous when Irina laughs at its seeming pretentiousness; Konstantin is mortified, but Nina is infatuated with Trigorin and idol-worships Irina, confessing her desire to be an actress.

Additionally, Masha [Faith Roberts], dressed all in black and "mourning for her life", pines for Konstantin's affection despite romantic overtures from the poor teacher Medvedenko [Jared Jones]; Masha's mother Polina [Emily Aveldanez] is in love with Dr. Dorn, and her father Shamrayev [Sam Penn] tries to ignore his wife's behavior. -- No spoilers as to how it all turns out.

So, lots to unravel in the play's four acts [presented here with one intermission]; and keeping track of who's who is further encumbered by the facts that several characters' names are not spoken for a long time and that the convention that Russians use a variety of names for each individual [patronymics, diminutives/nicknames, surnames, first names that reveal formal or familiar relationships that Russians would instantly recognize -- thank goodness Mr. Winkelman has minimalized their uses in his production].

Audiences must still pay special attention, as the action and overlapping stories come at them rapid-fire; Mr. Winkelman's fine acting company are up the mark through their thorough commitment to as naturalistic behavior and speech they can muster in dialogue that regularly threatens melodrama. It affords us access to them; they are so much like us.

And it is an excellent ensemble performance. One might identify readily with most any character, but our attention shifts from one to the next with such regularity that we find ourselves shifting allegiance as well...laughing or crying by turns, wanting to shake them out of their self-indulgent behavior or come to their rescue.

The Seagull is another Theatre AUM example of a piece of classic theatre that is all too infrequent on local stages.