Theater review: ‘The Seagull’ at the Antaeus Company
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One of the pleasures of revisiting frequently revived classics is getting the chance to see unexpected types of actors in familiar parts. Characters we thought we knew inside and out begin to reveal new qualities that force us to relinquish tired assumptions.
In the Antaeus Company’s double-cast production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” several members of the ensemble I saw didn’t at all fit the standard image of their characters. Antonio Jaramillo’s Tréplev, the Oedipally challenged young writer struggling to find his way artistically and romantically, seems a good decade older than usual. Abby Wilde’s Nína, the aspiring actress Tréplev is hopelessly in love with, is a little too raw to fill the naïve ingénue bill. Laura Wernette’s Arkádina, Tréplev’s egomaniacal actress mother, lacks the natural grande dame hauteur. Bo Foxworth’s Trigórin, Arkádina’s famous (and younger) writer lover, has a weary maturity that seems beyond his character’s years.
But rather than detract from the revival, these discrepancies allowed me to experience our old Chekhovian friends in a new light. It helps that the production, under the direction of Andrew J. Traister, is so attentive to the interpersonal dynamics of the play. The actors really connect with each other in their scenes. This is vital because their characters, strung out in love for the most part, are keenly aware of the comings and goings of those around them. Their hearts are forever monitoring the presence of their beloved, even if, as is so often the case in this inexhaustibly ironic play about the elusive nature of fulfillment, the passion is rarely reciprocal.
“The Seagull” was labeled a comedy by Chekhov, but it’s a dark one that veers off into tragedy. Traister hasn’t yet figured out the tonal balance of the work. His staging shifts somewhat awkwardly between somber realism and shameless farce, as though two different genres had been spliced together in some mad playwright’s laboratory.
Wernette, punctuating Arkádina’s remarks with a fan, overplays the diva shtick. The vain histrionics can be amusing, but it’s difficult to take the character seriously. She’s not the only actor who indulges in outlandish comedy (Bill Brochtrup’s Medvedénko, the stumbling, lovelorn schoolteacher, is as ludicrous as he is sad), but her role is too significant to treat strictly as a cartoon.
The other lead performers demonstrate more gravity. Jaramillo and Wilde, in fact, shy away from the play’s humor, but both live truthfully onstage. Tréplev’s lightning shifts from affection to despair are beautifully captured and Nína’s perilous journey from innocence to experience is conveyed without the slightest sentimentality.
In his realistic accounting of a decidedly middle-aged Trigórin, Foxworth introduces an interesting note of unconscious menace. This jaded artist, not a bad guy but a worn out one, simply can’t resist exploiting Nína’s youthful adoration of him, even as he can imagine the tragic consequences of the love affair before it has even started.
The actor who embodies that Chekhovian simultaneity of laughter and tears most naturally is Micheal McShane, who plays Sórin, the owner of the country estate where the play is set. A retired civil servant who regrets the way he squandered his life in a dreary office without realizing his dreams, McShane’s Sórin is as ridiculous as he is poignant — in short, completely human in that sublimely concentrated way of Chekhov’s.
This isn’t an elaborate production by any means. (The sets by Lechetti Design provide just enough visual accouterment to give us a sense of the beauty and boredom of this lakeside locale.) But the revival offers some valuable insights. The decision to make light of Tréplev’s play, teasingly performed in the first act, pays dividends in the final scene when Nína, in a turbulent rush of memory, recites her lines with newfound gravitas.
But it’s the fresh take on characters — Joanna Strapp’s pungent Másha, coarsened by her unrequited love for Tréplev, is particularly revitalizing — that makes this production as absorbing as it is. Humanity is the puzzle that is never solved, and the longer I spent with these incarnations of Tréplev, Trigórin and Nína, the more fascinated I became by their mystery.
-- Charles McNulty
‘The Seagull,’ The Antaeus Company, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 15. $30-$34. (818) 506-1983 or www.Antaeus.org Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes