Seagull Stew @ Kitchen Dog Theater

“Don’t bring in anything to the theater that doesn’t make the play clearer.” Anton Chekhov

What I like most about Kitchen Dog Theater is the intense way the company normally enlivens a script, its bold exploration of plays through physicality, emotion and relationship connections. These artists can transform an average play into a rich, exciting theatrical event. I anticipated a resplendent feast of artistic expression when they took on the 1896 Anton Chekhov classic tragic-comic masterpiece The Seagull, a detailed two-act examination of unrequited love and artistic aspirations at a remote lakeside Russian villa. While this production is an even production, at times compelling, it’s neither especially faithful to classical Stanislavski/Chekhovian roots in its execution, nor particularly effective in its attempt to “modernize”. It’s a bit of a hodge-podge, straddling classical and modern approaches with puzzling, discordant elements. It’s seagull stew.

L to R: Gregory Lush, Martha Harms, Michael Federico

Lines of text, by themselves, do not make a Chekhov play comprehensible and stage-worthy; the characters do. The scenes are often disconnected, but the emotional underpinnings of the characters, their back-stories, knit the production together, which makes the performance interesting. It’s what happens in real life, not  an arbitrary, artistic Aristotelian construct. All the primary action in The Seagull takes place off stage. Therefore, all the characters need to reveal a defined, energized relational history and subtext in their onstage interaction, based upon previous experiences. Otherwise, it’s just so much blather. Barry Nash as Sorin, Kent Williams as Dorn and Gregory Lush as Trigorin grasp the necessity of allowing the offstage past to inform the onstage present as well as exploring a late 19th century style sensibility in their performances. They “fit” within classical presentation parameters and allow their transitioning social situations to determine their psychological suffering. The rest of the cast acts with a contemporary mindset and physicality, in an abstract “present”, seeming to ignore the structure inherent in Chekhov’s play or how he wanted it created and presented.

Not to say that “modernizing” reinterpretation has no benefit — but it must be consistent and make sense. Costuming major character Arkadina primarily in what appear to be splashy, metallic 1930’s-1950’s dresses (while everyone else is in 19th century period attire) makes her into a distracting caricature, no matter how well Shelley Tharp-Payton can act. The weather, the natural environment, as written, has huge impact in The Seagull. In this production: no crickets, no singing birds, no retreat inside from oppressive cold or reluctance to head out into it, no sense of place and context. A hard-to-hear soundtrack of “blowing wind” is no substitute. The characters get swept along by multi-layered contexts in this play; ignoring the omnipresent role of elemental nature, as a “modernizing” conceit, weakens and flattens their performances. A small stage with elegant curtain, the “set” for the first scene’s lakeside experimental performance, remains pristine and unworn throughout, in spite of standing out in the elements unprotected over the course of several extreme Russian seasons, the play’s time frame. Realism? Virtual reality?

Vsevolod Meyerhold, the director described by Constantin Stanislavski on his death-bed as “my sole heir in the theatre—here or anywhere else”, described years later the poetic effect of Stanislavski’s treatment of The Seagull: “Probably there were individual elements of naturalism but that’s not important. The important thing is that it contained the poetic nerve-centre, the hidden poetry of Chekhov’s prose, which was there because of Stanislavski’s genius as a director. Up to Stanislavski people had only played the theme in Chekhov and forgot that in his plays the sound of the rain outside the windows, the noise of a falling tub, early morning light through the shutters, mist on the lake were indissolubly linked (as previously only in prose) with people’s actions.”

About casting: Michael Federico is an excellent actor, but that can’t make him look or act age 25 or younger, the age of his character Konstantin. The outrage, frustration and infatuation his character seethes and explodes with are expressions of a younger man’s passion. Federico comes off as bombastic and looks too old to play Konstantin.

Most of the time, Kitchen Dog Theater can turn kitchen sink goulash into delectable caviar. Their production of The Seagull, directed by Cameron Cobb, is a pleasant but uninspired potluck stew.  214-953-1055, Production runs through May 8, 2010.

For in depth discussion about producing and acting Chekhov: Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov, Barry Paris, editor

See an intriguing Wikipedia article with links and references about the fledgling Moscow Art Theatre’s 1898 production of The Seagull (co-directed by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Constantin Stanislavski) described by the Stanislavski scholar Jean Benedetti as “one of the greatest events in the history of Russian theatre and one of the greatest new developments in the history of world drama:

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