UNCW’S Cultural Arts Building
11/17-20, 8 p.m.; 2 p.m.
$5-$12 • (910) 962-3500
Irina Arkadina (Maria Katsadouros) is a famous actress of the Russian theatre. She and her entourage, which includes her adult son, Konstantin (Owen Hickle-Edwards), and her lover, the famous writer Boris Trigorin (Eddie Ledford), are visiting the family dacha (farm of country estate) owned by her brother Pyotr (Alex Holland). Konstantin is in love with the neighbor girl, Nina (Lauren Berg) and has cast her as the lead in his new play, which will debut by the lake at the dacha.
In Konstantin’s mind, he has written a ground-breaking play. He stages it with the able assistance of Nina as the lead and narrator in front of a curtain, behind which shadow puppets act out the monologue. The soap opera of daily life unfolds with Trigorin falling head over heals in lust for Nina before she runs away to the city to become an actress. This provokes a painful form of dramatic irony: The audience sees her performance in Konstantin’s play and therefore knows she cannot act, foreshadowing the inevitable: Things will end badly.
One of the advantages of university theatre staging a piece like this is the wealth of knowledge the faculty can provide the students about the history of the script, the life and intentions of the writer, and insights into a more complex form of humor than the average middle-class American teenager has encountered. The faculty recognizes the humor of Chekhov’s writing, and has tried valiantly in the program notes and through Dr. Vincent’s direction to emphasize the physical comedy—and the at times absurd nature of the relationships between the characters. Though there are very funny parts of the show—laugh out loud moments, even—the cast still seemed oblivious to her efforts. Frankly, I was surprised because the caliber of the last few productions at UNCW have been so high. Though several recognizable performers, whose work I usually enjoy, were part of the cast, by and large, they seemed nothing more than bored onstage.
“The Seagull” is about lust, unrequited love and eternal triangles. I remember college as a time consumed with all of the above. Trigorin should visibly vibrate at the sight of Nina, but nothing outside of the dialogue comes close to communicating that there is any connection between Ledford and Berg. If I didn’t know the script, I would never have believed she was prepared to throw her life away, move to Moscow and carry on an illicit relationship with this man. There are no sly glances, no knowing maneuvers, nothing that puts two people at opposite ends of the stage yearning for each other and drawing the audience in with their own need.
Ledford does not manipulate and cajole Katsadouros into accepting his desire for Berg; he doesn’t need to because she isn’t truly threatened by it. He just insists she should let him have this—without passion or sparks. Hickle-Edwards convinces us that he is completely self-involved, but his love for Berg is not passionate; it’s just an extension of his own idealized dramatization. One leaves wondering if any of these people have ever had sex? Can you imagine reality TV without sexual intrigue?
Likewise, no one tried to speak with a Russian accent. One of the reasons for the fame and reverence accorded to “The Seagull” in many theatrical circles is its association with Stanislavski, the father of method acting. I was surprised that, despite lengthy program notes, there was very little about the production history of this show—for instance, its initial failure. Nor was there any indication as to which translation was selected and why. Multiple translations into English are available, several notable for modern audiences include efforts by Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn and, of course, one of my favorites, “The Notebook of Trigorin” adapted by Tennessee Williams. The how and why behind the selection would be interesting to know.
Still, the UNCW Theatre Department has tremendous resources to draw upon for design and production. This show was set in czarist Russia in the 1890s. Though that is the setting Chekhov used when he wrote the play, it sort of surprised me that Dr. Vincent had chosen to stage it as a period piece. Chekhov is one of the more easily adaptable Russian playwrights for modern settings. Following the success of Dr. Vincent’s “King John” in a post-apocalyptic world, I expected to find “The Seagull” moved to a different locale, but costuming was traditional and fairly elaborate.
Yet, the costume shop beautifully executed the designs of Dr. Sorensen. Dr. Buck’s set design is mulit-functional and quite beautiful. One of the features of the new Cultural Arts Building is the projection screen in the main stage area, which has been used to great effect for several shows. In this production, it creates day and night, as well as a thunderstorm that looks like Edward Gorey drew it. Though the effects are lovely and certainly enhance the production, the rain is distracting to the point the audience cannot look at, much less concentrate upon, the performers during that scene.
This is show for and about writers. Many of the issues it raises are still pertinent today: the writer as a voyeur unable to fully participate because they are too busy composing the scene, the violation of personal privacy, the confusion caused by new work. Is it innovative or amateurish? And, the responsibility of humans for their actions—the ripple effects we create as we move through life. This is great show to see with a writer—or with anyone needing either an excuse or a catalyst for a deep conversation.