Seeing New Things in The Seagull
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Seeing New Things in The Seagull

Crow's Theatre stages an insightful and beautifully acted version of Chekhov's classic.

Tom Rooney as Trigorin and Yanna McIntosh as Arkadina in a scene from the Crow's Theatre production of The Seagull  Photo by Paul Lampert

Tom Rooney as Trigorin and Yanna McIntosh as Arkadina in a scene from the Crow’s Theatre production of The Seagull. Photo by Paul Lampert.

The Seagull
Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street)
Runs until February 8
4 Stars

Earlier this season, Tarragon Theatre offered us a boldly contemporary, German-inspired spin on Henrik Ibsen’s 19th-century classic An Enemy of the People. The new Crow’s Theatre production of The Seagull at Canadian Stage doesn’t give Anton Chekhov the same kind of shake-up, but it does make his 1890s masterpiece about love and art feel very much of our time.

The contemporary feel derives in part from director Chris Abraham’s decision to go with Robert Falls’s adaptation—created originally for a 2010 revival of the play at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre—which trims the text and uses current English idioms (who expects to hear someone drop an f-bomb in Chekhov?). It’s also created by Abraham’s here-and-now staging: we may be on a country estate in the twilight years of Tsarist Russia, but with these Canadian actors and accents, we could just as easily be at a lakeside cottage in Ontario.

Such choices only emphasize the fact that Chekhov’s work speaks to us still. When you hear the would-be-avant-garde writer Konstantin (Philip Riccio) railing against the mediocre state of theatre, complaining about plays full of platitudes that have been written so as not to offend anybody, you may find yourself reminded of a show you saw just the other night. It seems nothing has changed. Heck, when Konstantin calls for the breaking of barriers and the creation of new forms, you could be listening to Jordan Tannahill.

When it premiered in 1896, The Seagull was itself a radical new work—although not the kind Konstantin is intent on creating. Konstantin’s own apocalyptic play—light on action, heavy on special effects—is performed in the first act, before an unforgiving audience that includes his own mother, the celebrated actress Arkadina (Yanna McIntosh). The play really is bad, but the response, coming as it does from family members, seems uncharitable. Arkadina dismisses it outright, while her brother Sorin (played magnificently by Eric Peterson) simply falls asleep.

Arkadina and her lover, the famous author Trigorin (Tom Rooney), are making their regular summer visit to Sorin’s estate. Konstantin is hoping to impress them with his play, performed by his girlfriend, the aspiring actress Nina (Christine Horne). Instead, it’s Nina who makes an impression on Trigorin. He’s attracted to her, while she’s in awe of his talent and celebrity. He considers the prospect of having an affair with her in the same deliberate manner as if he were pondering a plot for one of his stories. Konstantin, already jealous of Trigorin’s literary success, is reduced to despair.

But Konstantin is not the only character who can’t get what he wants. Sorin’s house by the lake is awash in frustrated love. Masha (Bahia Watson), daughter of the estate manager, is carrying a torch for Konstantin. Medvedenko (Gregory Prest), the local schoolmaster, is vainly wooing Masha. Masha’s mother Polina (Tara Nicodemo) is carrying on an affair with the local physician, Dorn (Tom McCamus), and trying desperately to get him to run away with her. And proud Arkadina is reduced to pleading with Trigorin when his fling with Nina threatens to wreck their relationship.

To this bubbling cauldron of romantic turmoil, Chekhov adds his reflections on aspirations and careers. Sorin is frank about how he has botched his life. Trigorin is aware that, despite his fame, he falls short when compared to Russia’s literary giants. Arkadina chooses to forget the past, recalling only her triumphs. Indeed, both she and Trigorin possess a sort of wilful amnesia that allows them to carry on with their lives and their art. By the end of the play, Nina—the symbolic doomed “seagull” of the title—is well on her way to joining them. As intensely embodied by Horne, she’s a fragile bundle of nerves and enthusiasm in the first act, and a hollow-eyed, flat-voiced spectre in the final one. Now an abandoned lover and a bad actress, she’s learning to survive by forgetting and dully soldiering on. It’s no wonder Konstantin, unable to ignore his own failures, chooses a different way out.

Nina (Christine Horne) performs Konstantin's play in a scene from Crow's Theatre's The Seagull  Photo by Paul Lampert

Nina (Christine Horne) performs Konstantin’s play in a scene from Crow’s Theatre’s The Seagull. Photo by Paul Lampert.

Horne’s isn’t the only memorable performance. Abraham has assembled a dream cast of some of Canada’s finest actors, and they don’t disappoint. McIntosh brings her regal bearing to the self-centred Arkadina, but reveals some hidden maternal tenderness when nursing the wounded Konstantin. Her scene with Rooney’s Trigorin, in which she begs him not to leave her, is both an emotional firestorm and a sly revelation of Arkadina’s gifts as an actress. The slender, balding Rooney seems an unlikely choice for Trigorin—you’d expect him to play Dorn and handsome Tom McCamus to be the much-desired author. But Rooney perfectly captures the aloof attraction of the man, whose seeming diffidence hides a driven personality and a gnawing sense of inadequacy.

McCamus, meanwhile, is both dashing and lackadaisical as Dorn, a man resigned to his fate as a country doctor—much to the exasperation of his lover. When Nicodemo’s Polina violently tears to pieces a bouquet of flowers given to him by another woman, you sense she’s motivated by more than simple jealousy.

Like mother, like daughter. Masha is also big on displaying her feelings, wearing her broken heart on her inevitably black-clad sleeve. A restless, pouty Watson underlines the comedy in this tragicomedy, moping about majestically like a female Hamlet—but then, odd behaviour runs in the family. As her father, Shamrayev, Tony Nappo gives us a scarily unbalanced man who alternates between explosive rages and hearty laughs at his own belaboured jokes.

The two young men in the play also swing between tragic and comic. Riccio’s Konstantin would be laughably earnest if he didn’t also have suicidal tendencies. Prest’s comically pathetic Medvedenko is so relentlessly unloved and ignored that he almost makes you want to cry.

Abraham, with the help of his design team, creates that same powerful sense of atmosphere evident in his superb Stratford Festival production of Othello two seasons ago. Using the stripped-back downstairs theatre at Berkeley Street as her canvas, set designer Julie Fox sketches in the rudiments of a Russian country home. Kimberly Purtell’s lighting and Thomas Ryder Payne’s soundscape provide the rustic colour, from shafts of morning sunshine to the music of birdsong and rattling cicadas. There’s a gorgeous visual moment when Rooney’s Trigorin stands meditating before a sunny open window.

But we’re also deliberately made aware that we’re in a theatre in 2015. Fox’s costumes include contemporary elements, and her scenery doesn’t hide an emergency exit or various backstage paraphernalia. As if it were a semi-transparent painting, her stage picture reveals the “rough drawing”—the rehearsal hall—beneath.

There are a few uneven scenes, and those who know Chekhov’s text may object to the cutting of some memorable passages—Abraham replaces them with Pinter-length pauses. What we get in compensation, however, is a vital and at times revelatory treatment of what is still, more than a century on, a strange, awkward, delicate, and piercingly insightful play.