I think there may be some of us for whom a Chekhov play is not very enticing. We think that they are boring, and dated, and formless, and filled with confusing Russian characters with too many polysyllabic names.
This is a false assumption. Chekhov’s plays have been continually performed for 100 years precisely because they are beautifully structured, universal in theme, contain just the right mix of drama and humor, and are highly enjoyable.
This is the case with the unique adaptation of The Seagull, called The Seagull on 16th Street, playing at Theater J now through July 19. We saw it last night.
The Seagull is set in turn of the (last) century Russia, at a country estate far from Moscow. A place where visitors wish they could stay forever, and those that live there want to take the next train out. It is a play about theater. The two central characters are mother and son. The mother is a star of the Moscow stage, playing all the grand roles. Her son, stuck at the estate, wishes to break free of his mother’s influence, and create a different, more modern form of theater. The mother, jealous of her son (and of every young woman of theatrical amibition), frustrates, berates and insults him at every turn. The other main characters (the young woman who lives on the neighboring estate, the famous author on whom the famous actress dotes, the aging brother of the actress who lives at the estate, the doctor on whom everyone has always lavished attention, the overbearing manager of the estate) all play their roles in this comedic drama of universal emotional interest.
At Theater J, artistic director Ari Roth, working with translator Carol Rocamora, has made several changes to the play. Notably he made Arkadina (the mother) and Treplev (the son) Jewish, and Treplev’s attempt at creating a new form of theater is not an attempt to create early 20th century Russian avant garde theater, but rather a new form of Jewish theater.
What can one say about this unusual adaptation? I would suggest that one can say that it neither adds to the original Chekhov, nor detracts from it. And, further, that saying this makes for a very positive statement. For who would have thought that you could change the cultural background and religion of the two main characters of The Seagull, and not wind up with something a little hokey? But this production is not in the least hokey; it is a very strong production of The Seagull, a play which in any event gives one a lot to think about, with an added dimension, an added element of interest. What does it mean to live this “meaningless” existence in rural Russia, with the world passing you by, where the most realistic thing you can think about is escaping to the theater, when, among everything else, you are Jewish? Do you try to escape the Judaism, as Arkadina does, or embrace it, as Treplev attempts?
I said that the cast is strong, and it is. To say that I particularly enjoyed the performances of Alexander Strain as Treplev, Jerry Whiddon as Tregorin, and Veronica del Cerro as Nina would be true, but it would be unfair to the other members of the cast, all of whom put in very strong performances.
Attendance has not been good at this show. Probably because Chekhov does not automatically appeal. But don’t avoid it because it is Chekhov. Go see the show for this reason.