By Erik Nikander
Director Igor Golyak takes major chances in presenting a version of The Seagull that’s self-consciously about The Seagull. And they pay off.
The Seagull by A Chekhov. Directed by Igor Golyak. An original adaptation staged by the Arlekin Players Theatre at 368 Hillside Ave, Needham, MA, through December 8.
For its production of Anton Chekhov’s classic drama The Seagull, Arlekin Players Theatre goes meta. It opens not within the world of the play, but with director Igor Golyak stepping onto the stage, gathering his actors together, and passing them their parts. As they prepare to delve into the play, the cast tosses out venom-laced quotations from Chekhov, comments that denounce the theater — and admit that he just can’t stay away. Even as the narrative begins in earnest, Golyak steps in from time to time to guide the production along, tweaking scenes on the fly. And yet, despite all the meta-theatrical madness, the production achieves an almost magical clarity. Far from distracting us from Chekhov’s tale of creative frustrations and unrequited love, Golyak’s self-conscious flourishes only sharpen its sting.
Love triangles abound at the country home of Pyotr Sorin (Dev Luthra). Sorin’s nephew Konstantin (Eliott Purcell) is a young playwright with big ideas about how to revolutionize the art form. He is putting on a production of a strange and symbolic new play with Nina Zarechnaya (Irina Bordian), with whom he is deeply in love. Konstantin’s mother Irina (Anne Gottlieb), a renowned actress, can’t wrap her head around the script; neither can her boyfriend Boris Trigorin (Nael Nacer), a famous novelist. Nina starts to fall for Trigorin, sending Konstantin into a state of artistic and romantic despair, which leaves him blind to the affections of Masha (Darya Denisova), who pines for him from afar.
In this Arlekin Players Theatre production, Chekhov’s deftly woven web of struggling creatives and lovelorn romantics is cleverly understated, feeling natural rather than soap opera-ish. The emotional clarity of the dialogue shines like a beacon through the bizarre and sometimes unsettling dreamscape Golyak and crew have fashioned around it. The domination of black in Nikolay Simonov’s enigmatic set and Nastya Bugaeva striking costumes makes the space feel as if it’s shrouded in a blanket of shadows. The actors commit fully to the production’s roustabout, surreal nature: darting around the set like slapstick comedians, launching into impromptu dances at the drop of a hat. They’re so immersed in this theatrical madhouse that they compel us to follow.
Which is not to say that the performances in this Seagull consist of wild, over-the-top gallivanting. Golyak and his cast know when to pull back and play a scene straight. Ironically, when they do, the results are dynamite. The scene in which Irina tends to a stricken Konstantin is one of the show’s standouts. Gottlieb and Purcell do marvelous work establishing the fraught mother-son relationship, revealing volumes about the tension between the two through the use of minute details — tender gestures, stares held a moment too long. Chekhov’s text serves as jumping off point, the performers helping us feel the weight of everything that’s been left unsaid between the two characters. Nacer makes Chekhov’s personal tensions come alive through Trigorin’s powerful tirade on the frustrations of a writer’s lot. He makes the character’s gnawing indecision clear and palpable – he wishes he could leave the job behind and give in to Nina’s adoration. But there’s something about the icy independence of the artist’s life that he can’t let go of.
A sense of discovery permeates the entire production. Golyak keeps audience members on their toes by peppering little visual surprises throughout. It wouldn’t be fair to spoil them all here, but a few revelatory touches ought to be recognized. Nikolay Simonov’s set is deceptively simple, consisting of an arch with a doorway at each end — a swirling circle of sand sits at its center. As we discover more and more about the characters’ inner lives, the set shifts, generating exciting new visual tableaus. Golyak draws on Irina Vilenchik’s imaginative props, which range from a bag of seagull corpses to a giant version of the board game Operation, to create rich moments of symbolic significance. For instance, when literary inspiration strikes Trigorin, he lifts a loose seagull feather from the sand and scrawls his passionate words on Nina’s skin.
There is a brief intermission between acts three and four, in which the staging elements are shuffled around into a new configuration. The wide circle of sand becomes a ring, encircled with desk lamps that emit a spooky layer of light. When the show resumes, two years have passed; the characters’ lives have changed. Masha has married and Konstantin has found the literary fame he so desperately yearned for. But, despite the changes, the set retains its essential character, as do Chekhov’s characters. Konstantin is still the achingly hungry young man he always was, and Masha’s efforts to repress her affections hasn’t diminished them in the slightest. Chekhov observed that people are who they are, no matter their external circumstances. There was a part of him that couldn’t help but love theater because it gave him the means to express this truth — even when he hated the stage.
Other insights, both about human nature and the complex mind of Chekhov, are served up in Arlekin Players’s exceptional staging of this legendary play. Golyak takes major chances: after all, he is presenting a version of The Seagull that’s self-consciously about The Seagull. But nearly every choice he makes, no matter how unusual, has a purpose — to forge a more meaningful bond between audience members and story. The funny, moving, and gripping performances of the cast only sweeten the deal. In the hands of Golyak and company, The Seagull comes off as a guided tour through the dark, cavernous depths of a tortured artist’s heart. Be brave enough to take the journey – you won’t regret it.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.