THE SEAGULL Anton Chekhov
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AT THE BECK CENTER: Jan - Feb 2004
Strong performers, intimate sets make 'Seagull' a standout
Special to The Plain Dealer
In Cleveland, no one admires Chekhov more than director Thomas Q. Fulton. You can see the results of that devotion at the Beck Center for the Arts, where his beauti fully crafted ensemble production of "The Sea gull" is lighting up the Studio Theatre stage with a strong cast and direction that is full of loving details.
It's a pleasure to see Chekhov's large-cast play in the Beck's min iature space, on Don McBride's simple but effective unit set. Up close, Fulton and his cast make you feel the forced intimacy of Chekhov's extended family at its country retreat. I've never seen a production of "The Seagull" where the jealousies and unrequited passions felt so familiar yet inevitable.
Although there's admirable work being done in every corner, the play is anchored by three performances. Tracee Patterson is marvelous as the actress Arkadina. Flirtatious and manipulative, with a brittle beauty shown off by Alison Hernan's lovely gowns, she can also let the mask slip to show you the hollow need underneath.
As Arkadina's lover Trigorin, Jeffrey Grover is as reserved and handsome as an old-time matinee idol. (He even looks a bit like Leslie Howard.) He makes his attraction to fresh-faced Nina (Bernadette Clemens) sympathetic rather than predatory, which makes the betrayals to come even more heartbreaking. And Clemens is breathtakingly good as Nina. Her fourth-act transformation from bright-as-a-penny innocent to wounded-but-surviving adult is the best I've ever seen.
Jesse Kamps as Arkadina's callow son, the would-be writer Konstantin, isn't up to the others - his jealous pacing and bluster seem too often forced. But he too has moments of great sympathy. His scene with Patterson, as his mother bandages his head, has a foreshadowing quiet despair.
In this "Seagull," Fulton is a master at helping you understand all the relationships, down to the supporting and minor characters. Kat McIntosh makes Masha a perfect mirror of both her parents. She has the fussbudget nature of her mother, Polina (Mary Alice Beck), and enough of the barking crassness of her estate-manager father, Shamraev (Mark Cipra), to make her longing for Konstantin droll rather than tragic. Meanwhile, the comically hapless passivity of her suitor, Michael Dempsey's schoolteacher Medvedenko, echoes the relationship of Trigorin and Arkadina.
Philosophical and observant, Robert Hawkes is a sympathetic Dr. Dorn, the only one to relate to Konstantin's artistic aspirations. Kelly Holt's Sorin is a believable uncle, full of complaints yet fragile. Even the three servants make their tiny bits memorable. The look on Christopher Fortunato's face when he realizes Arkadina will make them share a minuscule tip is priceless.
Fulton makes beautiful use of the space, with entrances through audience aisles and off-stage conversations. The effect is to make us feel as though we're eavesdropping on real people, frustrating and endearing. It makes for a very satisfying evening.
is a playwright in Cleveland
Seagull Soars At The Beck Center
The Studio Theater at Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood was transformed to a warm and sunny Russia on Friday evening, in stark contrast to the the snowy, cold and blustery reality of Cleveland. The occasion was the opening night of The Seagull directed by Thomas Q. Fulton, well known in this area (as well as other areas) for his expertise with and fondness for the plays of Chekhov. In the intimate confines of the Studio Theater, even the tiniest detail is readily apparent, helping to bring out the humanity of the characters. The production overall is splendid, and deserves to play before sold-out houses for the duration of the run, through February 15.
Not necessarily known for his comedic writing, Chekhov insisted The Seagull was a comedy featuring 'tons of love'. And indeed it is, however, the love is usually directed at the unattainable: Masha for Kostya, Kostya for Nina, Polina for Dr. Dorn. On the other hand, Medvedenko loves Masha, Arkadina loves Trigorin (as does Nina), while Dorn loves his single life and Sorin loves the past, only wishing to re-live his life, but differently. Passions abound in these people, and after some confusing beginnings (trying to figure out who is who) they display more of themselves to each other as well as to the audience.
Set in the late 1800s at a country estate near Moscow, the normally four acts have here been condensed to two, with a break for a change of time midway in the second. (The first three acts all happen in a consecutive day or two; the fourth is two or three years later.) A summerhouse on a nameless lake is the scene for most of the play and it is a very inviting summerhouse with large windows and sounds of nature all around. The closest neighbor is a barking dog, which irritates the elderly but still-elegant Sorin, who has lived all his life in the country, despite wishing always to live in town. His health is beginning to fail, and at times he must resort to a wheelchair, but his mind remains sharp, befitting one who has worked in the Department of Justice for 28 years.
He lives with his nephew Kostya (Konstantin) the son of the noted actress Irina Arkadina, Sorin's younger sister. Arkadina and her lover—the equally famous writer, Trigorin—have come for a brief visit, setting the cycle of unrequited loves in motion. Kostya wants nothing more than to also be a famous writer, and to have the neighbor's daughter Nina for a wife. Nina wants to be a famous actress, and readily agrees to perform a small play for the visitors, one written by Kostya. But when his mother roundly criticizes the attempts of both writer and actress, other emotions rush to the surface.
Nina is so enamored with the idea of 'fame' that not even a powerful description of the fickleness of such a life by Trigorin can disuade her. Even though Nina eventually succeeds in having an affair with Trigorin, ultimately, he goes back to Arkadina. But Nina cannot love Kostya, in spite of his desire for her. Medvedenko marries Masha, who, in spite of having a young son, still pines for Kostya. Polina remains with her husband, Shamraev. In the final scenes, when Nina denies Kostya, she tells him to 'have faith in yourself' but it is too late for him, and he destroys his writing, before destroying himself.
The costumes by Alison Hernan are perfect. Masha in all black, 'mourns her life' while the sunny–yet fussy–elegance of Arkadina's gowns are an indication of her theatrical life in Moscow. Sorin is always precisely dressed befitting a member of the upper class, while Trigorin and Kostya reflect the latest in fashion styles for younger men of wealth and elegance.
Sets and lights by Don McBride (with a turn-about wall, the summerhouse becomes the interior of the house) readily evoke the time of day or night, and sound by Richard Ingraham reflects the stillness of country life, accented by storms, birds, or barking dogs.
However, in a play with so little action, it is the characters who tell the tale, and the acting here is routinely superb. One never gets the feeling that these people are merely acting parts, only to return to their own persona when the curtain falls. A special commendation must go to Tracee Patterson in the arduous role of Irina Arkadina, who does not merely play the part. She IS Arkadina every second she is on stage. From wheedling Trigorin to stay an extra day, to consoling Kostya for supposed failures, or encouraging Sorin to be more content where he is, she is all luminous passion. There are moments of jealousy and/or insecurity–a woman of 32 cannot possibly have a son of 25, after all—and of course, one cannot predict one's next success, but she basks in the love and attention she gains from the men in her life. Her emotions change with the speed of lightning, and are never far from the surface. The expressiveness of her face is wondrous: ever theatrical, ever 'on': from tiny worries to megawatt smiles, she is the consummate diva.
When Kostya asks her to change the bandage on his head (a result of his first attempt at suicide) her hesitation is magnificent. Her eyes widen, and her lips tremble, while her long, slender, never-still fingers twitch and fidget before she can bring herself to perform this task so much a part of motherhood. The scene devolves, however, into a passionate fight and reconciliation between mother and son.
Jeffrey Grover as Trigorin and Jesse Kamps as Kostya are both excellent in their similar yet differing portrayals of young men of letters. Trigorin's painfully accurate description of the writer's life was entirely too heartfelt, too perfect, while Kostya's yearning for the unattainable was heart-wrenching. In many ways, these two are mirrors of the other.
Nina is the complete, bright-eyed ingenue, portrayed with enthusiasm by Bernadette Clemens. She declaims or postures all the while knowing that Kostya is in the background as she struggles to bring Tregorin to the front. The Masha of Kat McIntosh brings the small details to bigger-than-life size. Her relish of the vodka in the scene with Tregorin is pure delight.
Kelly Holt, with his aureole of white hair, has all the mannerisms of the crotchety old gentleman completely mastered, for whenever he grows into them. He exudes patrician elegance, even while complaining about the neighbor's barking dogs, or that he never wanted to live in the country. The Dr. Dorn of Robert Hawkes is well on his way to curmudgeonliness. A fastidious dresser, he relishes being single, warding off the amorous attempts of Polina by telling her "I'm fifty-five!" One can hardly tell if he's bragging or complaining!
of the cast—Michael Dempsey as Medvedenko, Mary Alice Beck as Polina,
Mark Cipra as Shamraev, as well as Christopher Fortunato, Emily Updegraff
and Aaron Coleman (who also do double duty as stagehands) bring feeling
and belief to their roles, whether mid-sized or small.
This production of The Seagull is one to be cherished. If you've never experienced Chekhov, here is a wonderful beginning. Don't miss it!
For more information,
or to purchase tickets for this production or other presentations at the
Beck Center for the Arts, call (216) 521-2540 or visit the web-site: http://www.beckcenter.org
Anton Chekhov proves Thoreau's point in his tragicomic drama "The Seagull," at The Beck Center for the Arts through Feb. 15. Tom Stoppard's brilliant translation lends an even greater contemporary ring to the first of the Russian playwright's four classic plays dealing with the human condition.
The sizeable cast and talky play, in which nothing much happens, is a challenge for any director. Thomas Q. Fulton meets it with positive and often moving results in the well-directed three-hour production.
The intimate setting of the Studio Theatre (the smaller of Beck's two theaters), is the perfect backdrop for a world peopled with characters who have nothing to do and nowhere to go. You can almost feel the claustrophobia of these characters as they interact with one another in cramped surroundings.
The production is a triumph of ensemble acting.
The unforgettable opening lines of Chekhov's early masterpiece sets the comic tone of these hapless characters' lives. "Why are you always in black?" the dour schoolmaster, Medvedenko, asks Masha.
To which the equally morose young woman replies, "I am in mourning for my unhappy life."
As is most everyone else whose all-too-human whining about life's disappointments mask a deeper yearning for something better.
The setting is Sorin's country estate in pre-Revolutionary Russia where his nephew, Konstantin, an aspiring playwright, is about to present his first written work. A makeshift stage is underway. The hammering of nails, a barking dog and a chorus of birds in Richard B. Ingraham's rich sound design heighten the countrified milieu of Don McBride's functional set.
Among those present is Konstantin's mother, Irina Arkadina, a well-known actress, and her lover, Trigorin, a popular writer. The star of Konstantin's abstract play is Nina, an aspiring actress whom Konstantin hopelessly loves.
When Konstantin's play proves a failure, it sets in motion a course that will lead to tragedy.
Konstantin shoots a seagull, which he throws at Nina's feet; then he threatens to do away with his own life. Chekhov wrote his drama based on a real-life incident, with the seagull serving as a symbol of artistic and human aspiration.
Tracee Patterson breathes so much life into the role of the selfish, egotistical Irina Arkadina. Vacillating between overt cruelty and guilt-ridden remorse for the way she treats her son, Arkadina both loves and hates Konstantin, whose 25 years remind her she is middle-aged. Arkadina is also a cheapskate and she keeps her son in rags while spending lavishly on her own wardrobe, a visual treat from costumer Alison Hernan.
Jesse Kamps is excellent as the volatile, overly sensitive struggling writer, Konstantin, whose neurotic love for his mother, and equally unbalanced love for Nina, hold him in thrall.
Jeffrey Grover conveys the ennui of the emotionally weak Trigorin, who writes out of compulsion rather than passion and who recognizes that he is, at best, a second-rate writer.
Following her triumphant performance in "Three Tall Women" at Ensemble Theatre, Bernadette Clemens proves her versatility and prodigious talent as the naïve ingenue, Nina. Yearning for fame and fortune, Nina flees to Moscow where she becomes Trigorin's mistress until he tires of her.
Though life proves a disappointment for Nina, too, she is the only one who acts upon her life while the others remain static.
Kat McIntosh succeeds as the ill-tempered, vodka-imbibing Masha, who marries Medvedenko to escape her unrequited love for Konstantin.
Michael Dempsey is suitably wimpish as the spineless husband, Medvedenko.
Kelly Holt fits the role of the landowner, Sorin, whose unfulfilled life is a litany of regrets. "I want to live," rages the dying man against the night.
Mark Cipra is the boorish farm manager, Shamraev, and Mary Alice Beck is his hard-nosed wife, Polina. Polina is in love with the sympathetic Dr. Dorn (a credible Robert Hawkes) who, at 55, has had his fill of women.
During a lively argument about theater, the old forms versus the new, one of the characters proclaims, "We must have theater." This fine production proves his comments.
The four-cornered love jones involves Nina, a young actress-in-training who swoons over Trigorin, a famous author teetering on the brink of middle age. Trigorin is ensnared in a passive (him)-aggressive (her) affair with theatrical diva Arkadina, who, when she's not jerking Trigorin's chain, is busy undermining her emotionally impulsive son, Konstantin, a struggling writer in love with Nina. Also bobbing around in this spicy borscht are a number of other quaint characters, including the brandy-loving Masha (black-clad Kat McIntosh, so depressed she seems to be channeling Richard Lewis), her kick-me schmoo of a husband, Medvedenko (an almost transparent Michael Dempsey), and the comical estate caretaker, Shamraev, and his unstable wife, Polina (Mark Cipra and Mary Alice Beck).
Bernadette Clemens offers a radiant, multi-tiered characterization of Nina, a complex role portrayed with seemingly effortless virtuosity. In the juicy role of Arkadina, Tracee Patterson is a joy to watch as she manipulates Trigorin (played with perfectly resigned squishiness by Jeffrey Grover) and twists her son into a Freudian pretzel. As Konstantin, Jesse Kamps does his best with a character that seems too sincere to be funny and too volatile to be endearing. Looking on from the outside are two gentlemen: the happily single Dr. Dorn (a bemused Robert Hawkes) and the elderly host, Sorin, played by Kelly Holt, who possesses such a magnificently expressive face, it should be sculpted onto a Royal Doulton mug without delay.
In less capable hands, the large cast could have turned into a free-for-all on Beck's small Studio Theater stage, but director Thomas Q. Fulton uses Don McBride's elegantly efficient set and Alison Hernan's delicious costumes to achieve a cozy intimacy. And by paying attention to the small details of characterization as well as the spoken words, Fulton paints a rich and endlessly fascinating canvas. For a play about nothing, that's something.
clevescene.com | originally published: February 4, 2004
|© Copyright Tom Fulton 2001-1004|