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Monday, January 28, 2013


As any parent knows, a gestation period of nine months seems long, but the result is worth the wait—even when the result is a production of Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull.

photo by Candace Brown
It took nine months of work for this masterpiece to be ready open at ACT—A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle on Jan. 25. It did so with a waterfront scene where two men and a woman in folk costumes warmed up on violin, accordion, and guitar. Add to this the realistic sounds of gulls, symbolizing a fresh cry of new life for a play first staged in 1896. But life is short. The show runs Thursdays through Sundays, ending on Feb. 10, 2013, in ACT's Falls Theatre and tickets could disappear.

The current production developed from a workshop called The Seagull Project, driven by a group that describes itself this way: “We are a company of theater artists committed to staging vital and enduring work through long term exploration in our rehearsal process, and creating a uniquely prepared and cohesive ensemble.”

Cast with Piano
Photo: LaRae Lobdell

Ten of Seattle’s finest veteran actors—among them John Bogar, Peter Crook, Julie Briskman, Brandon J Simmons, and Mark Jenkins—and an outstanding artistic team devoted nine months of their lives to weekly sessions filled with intense study and seemingly endless rehearsals. Their shared love of Chekhov’s work—The Seagull in particular—brought them together and bound them all to a common goal.
The project also received support from Chap and Eve Alvord, Brad and Linda Fowler, and ACT. The Central Heating Lab at ACT, self-described as “an incubator and catalyst for new works,” stayed true to its mission here.

The play takes place on a lakeside country estate in Russia before the revolution and examines how its characters, although distinctly different from each other, share common curses. They suffer from unrequited love, total self-absorption, bad decisions, and the inability to find satisfaction in their lives. Director John Langs masterfully wove the talents of his actors into Chekhov’s vision, to create a timeless tapestry of human interactions, longings, and insecurities.
Julie Briskman, as the middle-aged but youth-obsessed actress Irina Arkadina, impressed me most of all. I loved watching her character’s expressions and the way she revealed jealousy and vulnerability with so much subtlety and finesse, even while publically fanning the embers of her former fame.

Julie Briskman, Peter Crook, Hannah Victoria Franklin
Photo: Chris Bennion

Brandon J.Simmons, portrayed her son, Konstantin, a troubled and frustrated young playwright who rejects the established forms of his art and seeks the new, resulting in Irina’s ridicule. Simmons and Briskman deftly handled the complicated dynamics of a destructive mother/son relationship, fraught with equal parts of attachment and rivalry.
Although Konstantin’s need for attention and dramatic behavior seemed excessive at times, Simmons portrayed this disturbed and difficult character so realistically that the character haunted me. I felt the tension created every time he stepped onto the stage even while his complexities drew me in. I won’t forget him.

Alexandra Tavares and Brandon Simmons
Photo: Chris Bennion
John Bogar, as Irina’s trophy lover, the successful writer Trigorin, succeeded well in his role as a man both charming and morally weak, and he delivered a long speech with great eloquence. Alexandra Traveres, as Nina, the innocent girl from a neighboring estate who tragically falls in love with Trigorin (even while Konstantin falls tragically in love with her) dreams of a life in the theater. Traveres, was faced with the challenge of being a highly skilled actress playing the part of a not-so-skilled actress, which felt schizophrenic at times, but she had many moments of brilliance that provided dramatic impact.

John Bogar and Alexandra Tavares
Photo: Chris Bennion
Hannah VictoriaFranklin gave a fine performance in the role of Masha, the estate manager’s daughter, hopelessly in love with Konstantin, who pays her no mind. I enjoyed the way she took a character easily disliked for her constant negativity, neglect of husband and child, and chronic drunkenness and made me appreciate her sharp wit, intelligence, and the perverse integrity she showed toward her dedication to gloom. For reasons of escape, rather than love, she marries the poor school teacher Medvedenko, played by CT Doescher, who created a bumbling appeal as the least respected but probably most stable and morally fit character in the play.
Doris Black’s costume designs thrilled my eye with her use of color, line, and historically accurate detail. And we obviously share a passion for textiles. The sets were simple and few, just the dock and a room's interior, but they both seemed more than enough when filled with imagination's details. Robertson Witmer, music director/composer and sound designer, and Brendan Patrick Hogan as sound associate, created just the right moods to match Jennifer Zeyl’s beautiful scenes. The live violin, guitar, and accordion music, though used with a light touch, added flavor. So did Andrew D. Smith’s lighting design, the way he created the feeling of the lake shore and the stormy night when the play reaches its dramatic conclusion.

Pushing Konstatin
Photo: LaRae Lobdell
I applaud the entire cast. Each member should be proud of their performance as individuals as well as members of The Seagull Project. Even if I had not already known about the nine months of work behind this particular production of The Seagull, the difference between that amount of preparation and the usual (about three weeks) clearly showed. I felt the cohesiveness of the cast. I felt the heft of all those rehearsals. I saw how well the actors understood their characters, all of whom came to the stage as real people—complicated, contradictory, sometimes irritating, mostly pathetic, but lovable in their own way, and definitely unforgettable. After nine months spent absorbing every nuance of the script, this cast offered delicious subtleties of expression, gesture, pacing and tone, expressing as much with their non-verbal acting as with their lines. (Learn more about The Seagull Project here.)
Driven more by character than plot, The Seagull fascinates by slowly revealing the deeper motivations and personalities of those who occupy this micro-society living in isolated luxury. Even the mysterious lake, implied but never seen, plays a part. To me it symbolized the delicate balance between the characters’ ability to exist as they appeared on the surface or risk drowning in the dark depths of their hidden souls.

Chekhov referred to The Seagull as a comedy, but he must have defined that word differently than I would. If you see it, and I recommend you do, expect a satire and the kind of humor related to irony, more than any knee slapping, although it will make you laugh at times. Think of the fine line between the humorous and the pathetic, or the kind of humor that causes us to laugh at others from the safety of our own supposedly wiser viewpoints.
Here in Tacoma, I often see seagulls. And having been around these birds all my life, I feel a mix of emotions when I hear their long, haunting cries. They draw our attention to our own yearnings for the freedom of flight. But the seagull must always come down to earth again, where human relationships happen. Those relationships can take the shape of pale golden agates in the sparkling sand, or broken shells on a slippery rock. Did Chekhov, in writing this his so-called comedy, hear the seagull’s cry as laughter or pain? You decide.

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