The Quintessence Theatre Group concludes its season with an inconsistent production of Anton Chekhov’s landmark work The Seagull.
The first of Chekhov’s four plays, The Seagull’s production at the Moscow Art Theater ushered in a new era in theater history. Unlike the melodramas that have traditionally dominated Russian theater, The Seagull is a tragicomedy. It was so radical that it demanded an entirely new approach to acting. Instead of the exaggerated gestures and emotions favored by actors in melodrama, MAT co-founder Konstantin Stanislavski (who directed the company’s staging of The Seagull) created a technique for a more realistic style of acting that remains the staple of most theater today.
Although Stanislavski’s production marked the birth of modern theater, Chekhov felt that the director neglected the play’s humor (a charge Chekhov continued to make with each subsequent production of his work by Stanislavski).
If Chekhov’s assessment was correct and Stanislavski underemphasized play’s comedy, he isn’t the only one. Since the night Seagull opened at MAT in 1898 (the show’s world premiere two years earlier in St. Petersburg was an unmitigated disaster), directors have struggled to marry the play’s humor with the overwhelming sense of futility as the characters repeatedly fail to fulfill their deepest desires.
Director Alex Burns’ production succeeds in striking the right tone, particularly in conveying the play’s cynical sense of humor (thanks to the performance of William Zielinski as the town doctor). The problems with Quintessence’s production are Burns’ pacing (which at times is achingly slow) and the uneven cast, whose performances range from spectacular to one-dimensional.
The story takes place on the country estate belonging to retired lawyer Sorin (Robert Bauer in a sensational performance). It’s summertime and Sorin is being visited by his sister Arkadina (Janis Dardaris), a famous stage actress who is as self-obsessed as she is talented. Accompanying Arkadina is her noticeably younger boyfriend Trigorin (a bland Josh Carpenter), a successful writer consumed with his work. Joining them is Arkadina’s unhappy, idealistic son Konstantin (Jamison Foreman); the local schoolteacher Medvedenko (Alexander Harvey in the production’s most touching performance); the would-be actress and object of Konstantin’s affections, Nina (Rachel Brodeur); the obnoxious estate manager Shamrayev (Randall McCann); his love-sick daughter Masha (Julia Frey); and her mother Polina (the reliably excellent Marcia Saunders).
None of the characters is content, the most common malady being unrequited love. Medvedenko is in love with Masha, who is in love with Konstantin, who is in love with Nina, who is in love with Trigorin. Even the few who aren’t suffering from a broken heart are far from satisfied with their lives.
Arkadina is addicted to the adoration and applause that her worshipful fans heap on her and Dardaris is superb at communicating the actress’s desperate need of attention. However, Dardaris is most affecting when we get a glimpse of Arkadina’s maternal side as when she lovingly bandages her son’s self-inflicted head wound. In these moments (many of which are provided by Bauer), Quintessence’s Seagull is both tender and sweetly moving. When the actors try to do too much (as in the final face-off between Nina and Kostya), the production feels forced and inauthentic.
The stand-out in the cast is Bauer, who draws on his more than 30 years of experience as an actor and director to deliver a wonderfully sensitive portrayal of Sorin. He manages to shine on stage without ever eclipsing his fellow actors. Sorin’s compassion for his young nephew works to make Arkadina appear even more self-centered. Similarly, Bauer’s depiction of Sorin’s physical frailties highlights the callousness and cynicism of Zielinski’s disinterested doctor.
Through June 3. $10-$30. Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. 877.238.5596.