Performing Chekhov is notoriously difficult. The theatrical premiere of “The Seagull” in 1896 was a famous disaster, and Chekhov reportedly hated the first production of “The Cherry Orchard” in 1904. His plays operate somewhere between comedy and tragedy; they find a comfortable (or uncomfortable) middle ground between the hilariously absurd and the terrifyingly melancholy.
The Seagull (or simply “Seagull,” as translated for UCSB’s currently running production) was the first of Anton Chekhov’s most-famous four plays, and it revolves around an aging stage-actress Irina, her depressed son Konstantin, a young wannabe actress Nina, a semi-famous writer Trigorin and a host of others residing at a country estate near a lake. Love and art intertwine as fears of success, failure, the role of the art and artistry in the community, patience and fame come to bear witness through the agonizing struggles of these individuals on the lakefront, in the city and on the stage at the turn of the century.
The cast of “Seagull” is populated with a nice mix of new and old faces, many of whom hail from the Bachelor of Fine Arts emphasis, the Theatre & Dance Dept.’s prestigious acting program. Seniors Natasha Lloyd and Charlie Faith show how solid they’ve become as performers playing characters well beyond their years, imbuing dignity and grace (as much dignity as can be spared for an old miser and a “talented” writer) into their roles.
Merlin Huff, a junior BFA candidate, uses his boyish good looks to benefit the depressed theatrics of tortured artist Konstantin. And, although her role was minimal, sophomore BFA member Joelle Golda has a lot of fun playing Masha, the depressed woman dressed in black, “in mourning for her life.” Matthew Horn, another senior in the BFA program, makes a surprising and very entertaining turn as Sorin, Irina’s deteriorating brother. If anyone saw this man in “Woyzeck” last year, they will be stunned by his transformation here.
But the real star of the show is Lydia Rae Benko, a junior BFA candidate, who effortlessly plays Nina, a naïve farm girl who dreams of fame on the stage as a great actress. I believe this is her first starring role here at UCSB, and she captures the careless exuberance and single-minded enthusiasm of Nina quite effectively, and her fall from grace in the last act is quite heartbreaking.
The department’s adaptation was very effective, I believe because they knew how to capture the middle ground of reality that Chekhov so strived for in his plays. The tragedy is offset by hilarious absurdities (Konstanin’s symbol of his love for Nina is a dead seagull that is eventually stuffed) and the comedy is filled with a bitter sense of resentment and irony (Masha marries the pedestrian school teacher in order to forget her sorrows). They kept the sets and stage design to a minimum; a couple of platforms, tables and a big blue tapestry serve as the lake. The vacuum of the décor strips them down to their idiosyncratic quirks and details, but also allows the characters to become seemingly larger than life.
What threw me off initially was how off-the-cuff some of the language in the play felt. The translation by Libby Appel (and Allison Horsely) took the Russian language and adapted the words in English to vacillate between modern casual and more turn of the century lyrical. It works, I think, because of how startlingly contemporary this play (along with all Chekhov’s plays) already feels.
All art is about art. Anything creative tends to reflect back on the creative process, and with this new production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, the extremely self-aware complexities are embraced whole-heartedly.