You've seen it -- the glaze that falls over someone's eyes when you mention Chekhov. The glisten of sweat on their forehead as they pray you won't ask them to go with you. True, there are the lovers and the scholars, but for the uninitiated, going to see a Chekhov play can mean a very, very long evening.
Well, you would be a fool for not hurrying to see "The Seagull," playing through February 10th at ACT. The Seagull Project, an ensemble of veteran Seattle actors and other Chekhov aficionados, spent the better part of nine months, relentlessly workshopping and mining meaning. They banded together to produce this production through Russian-themed tea parties at private donors' homes and even a Kickstarter campaign. There is love here, folks. There is fortitude. And fortunately for everyone, there is incredible talent. This is even apparent at the top of the show, where three musicians casually tune and play their instruments while interacting with such ease and familiarity, you wonder if they knew the house had opened. The tagline of "A Comedy in Four Acts," is not entirely inaccurate, the satire of artistic self-indulgence is thick and funny. Carol Rocamora's accessible translation really helps with this.
"The Seagull" centers around the lake house of Pjotr Nikolayevich Sorin (played by a lovable Mark Jenkins, who also happens to be a Seattle's pre-eminent expert on acting Chekhov). Sorin's sister Arkadina (Julie Briskman), an aging actress still clinging to her fading youth and popularity, and her lover, a well-known writer named Trigorin (John Bogar) come to visit and endure the lofty plays and writings of her son Konstantin (Brandon J Simmons). Arkadina, unwilling to relinquish the spotlight to anyone, dismisses Konstantin's art as frivolous. Konstantin, meanwhile, finds time in his busy schedule of self-loathing and philosophizing to fall in love with a local girl named Nina (Alexandra Tavares) who wants more than anything to be an actress. The play focuses on the relationships and desires of these characters and others living on the estate, and how hubris can easily turn healthy ambition into something sour.
Sounds funny, right? Actually, it is! Well. Sometimes. When people aren't verbally shooting poisoned barbs at their family members or stealing other people's lovers or crushing the ingenue's dreams.
The cast is impeccable. It's hard to imagine how this show could be even done without the intensive bonding that went on between the actors. The texture between the lines, in every breath and every pause, is so intricate and rich that even the various little snippets of unrequited love affairs are full stories. There isn't a single misstep in the entire cast -- it's almost a shame to mention anyone above the rest since all the performances are so excellent, but Brandon J Simmons as the tortured "Konstantin" and Peter Crook as "Dorn," the doctor and family friend, are particularly wonderful. Briskman as "Arkadina" is breathtaking as the willfully ignorant and hopelessly self-obsessed actress. Her scene where she begs Trigorin to stay is hilarious and heartbreaking. Tavares tenderly plays "Nina" with perfect complexity, never falling too hard on the naive wannabe or the nubile manipulator.
Actually, rewind. CT Doescher as "Medvedenko," the painfully earnest, Ichabod-esque school teacher, deserves a standing ovation all to himself. Mostly because that would be only decent thing to do after watching him get trampled by every other person in the play with wincingly good spirit.
While the accessible script is one of the great strengths of the production, it is also one of the weaknesses. There are a few moments, especially of Masha's, that were a little too modern-colloquial and the portrayal seemed to skip a century. Also, the first act is kind of like the first episode of Downton Abbey -- you have no idea who anyone is, but you know some of them are up to no good and it's more important to find out why than who. It would be remiss to mention that the production clocks in at a little over two and a half hours with one intermission, so you might want to skip that quick coffee before curtain.
That being said, Director John Langs does a brilliant job keeping the pacing light and the action engaging. There is a scene where Konstantin is assembling a curtain for his upcoming play, and for some reason it is the most engrossing thing you've ever seen. The three musicians/servants that bring on and strike boxes, picnic accoutrements, furniture, and tea sets are seamlessly employed.
"The Seagull" at ACT is a brilliantly executed classic that doesn't feel like you're taking medicine. With all the flashy, wink-wink shows floating around these days, it's actually refreshing to see a bit of theatre that treats you like an adult. Hopefully The Seagull Project will stick around and gift us with another.
The Seagull Project presents
"The Seagull" at ACT
Now through February 10
Tickets ($35) are available by visiting http://www.acttheatre.org
Or calling 206 292 7676