New translation of Chekhov’s Seagull proves a perfect match for Steppenwolf’s new Ensemble Theatre

Photo by Michael Brosilow

When you say that you are doing a version of Chekhov’s The Seagull (or indeed any Chekhov play at all), the expectations turn to something dark, serious, complicated, highly symbolic, tied to its era, and hard to fully appreciate. Even those who truly admire the 19th Century Russian playwright’s works would have to admit that they are not as universal as, say, those of Shakespeare. Why, then, would Steppenwolf Theatre choose this as the play that would christen its glistening new Ensemble Theatre, the jewel of its $74 million expansion project? Wouldn’t something more accessible be a better choice to put people in those seats, especially when they are wary of returning to the theatre in the first place?

I’m happy to report, though, that both the production itself and the theatre are remarkable. For those who have forgotten (or didn’t know), The Seagull is a wonderfully ensemble-driven piece, so there are plenty of juicy parts for Steppenwolf’s experienced actors (including one part, Trigorin, that is generally acclaimed to be his best male character ever, but more on that later). As to the theatre, well, the new theatre-in-the-round is comfortable, beautiful, and carries a few nice surprises that add to the experience of this play. Not only that, but there isn’t a bad seat in the house.

An actors’ theatre deserves an actors’ play, as director and translator Yasen Penyankov, a Steppenwolf ensemble member, certainly knows. Penyankov, who has worked on this new adaptation for fourteen years, places the focus on providing “actor-friendly language” that is contempory in its sound while maintaining the play’s Chekhovian roots and rhythms. He has also emphasized the Russian’s humor, too often missed by translators and directors. This play then becomes an amalgamation of comedy, tragedy, social commentary, and period melodrama, all while spending its time skewering both the idea of romantic love and the über-seriousness and self-centeredness with which actors and writers often see their arts.

Not bad for a single evening.

The Seagull opens with a group of friends getting ready to attend a play that Konstantin (Namir Smallwood in role that allows him to explore a wide range of emotions) has written that stars Nina (an exuberant Caroline Neff), a young woman who is so in love with him that our first view of her is leaping into his arms. Nina, though, is also in love with her idea of the theatre and fame. She sees both as exotic and miraculous, and she desperately wishes to find that for herself. When she finds out that Konstantin’s mother Irina (Lucia Strus milking everything possible from the role of a semi-washed-up actress who makes Fredrika Armfeldt of A Little Night Music seem like a helicopter mom) is coming to the play with her current lover, the aforementioned Boris Trigorin, an accomplished short story writer, she is absolutely dazzled by this close encounter with fame. Nina is completely smitten.

Konstantin’s intensely poetic, bombastic play-within-a-play confuses most of the audience of friends, and it isn’t helped by Nina’s severe overacting. It is, however, an excellent opportunity to show off what Steppenwolf’s new theatre is capable of being. He tells the gathering, prior to the performance, “Here is a theatre. No curtain, no wings, no landscape. Just an empty place.” He is right, and we can see it: this little theatre (with scenic design by Todd Rosenthal) may have a few tricks up its sleeves, but it is nothing at all, just an empty place, without a strong cast and a script to perform.

Joey Slotnick’s Trigorin leans away from the darker interpretations of the character that one sometimes sees. Here he is not the cunningly evil manipulator of women, but a man who has managed in some way he cannot fathom to infatuate a beautiful young woman. This Trigorin still maintains the character’s complexity (and to be fair he is taking advantage of Irena), but Slotnick does not portray him as a villain. Some of his actions are despicable, but they seem to be products of expedience, not malice. He is entirely open with both women about the ways in which his mind sees everyone and everything not as anything more than mere possibilities for a new story. After Konstantin, in a fit of melodrama, kills a seagull and presents it as a gift to Nina, Trigorin sees in it a symbol for a beautiful young life snuffed out by a man with a gun “because he has nothing better to do” (a thought that has all sorts of connections to both our heroine and our modern world).

Instead of presenting us with an evil, malign Trigorin upon whom we can place easy blame for what happens, Peyankov allows us to watch the self-created dissolution of his two main young characters. While Irina proves herself incapable of any kind of change, her son and his erstwhile flame spiral into internal despair, depression, and chaos. Konstantin tries to kill himself. Nina finds that getting her dream is not all she thought it would be. Don’t look for happy endings in a Chekhov play, no matter how funny it may get.

Chekhov, of course, being Chekhov, presents us here with a wide variety of characters in addition to these leads. Standouts among these include the lovelorn Masha (Karen Rodriguez), a depressed soul who wears goth clothing and who is hopelessly in love with Konstantin…even after she marries Medvedenko (Jon Hudson Odom), the hapless but faithful teacher who loves her. Also notable is Jeff Perry’s sardonically humorous take on Peter Soren, Irina’s older brother, whose self-assessment is “There was a time, all I ever wanted was two things: get married and be a writer. And I never did either one. Yes.” (Scott Jaeck will take on the role from May 24 through June 5.)

It turns out that this Chekhov drama is an almost perfect choice to open the Ensemble Theatre, as it provides opportunities for so many members of the ensemble to strut their stuff. It may not be for everyone—for one thing, many key moments happen offstage, which, though typical of 1890s drama, goes against the grain of modern expectations)—but Peyankov, both as translator and director, pulls more humor and nuance from this 130-year-old play than any version I’ve ever seen. The fact that he also grounds it all in real emotion would please the playwright as well.

Seagull is playing until June 12. Tickets at Steppenwolf.org.

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