Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull has baffled audiences since its premiere in St. Petersburg, in 1896. Though meant as a comedy, it was perceived as a tragedy—no surprise, considering how it turns out.
Elevator Repair Service, the 30-year-old experimental theater group now messing with the play in NYU Skirball’s cavernous auditorium, has a history of taking apart serious works of literature and theater and massaging them into lively, often hilarious new versions. Former Voice arts and culture editor Brian Parks, reviewing an early ERS piece in 1993, described this approach as “a kind of intuitive art-slapstick.” When it works, it’s wonderful, as in Gatz, a six-hour staged version of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (first directed by ERS’s founding director, John Collins, in Brussels in 2006). Gatz premiered at Cambridge’s A.R.T. in 2010 and then played New York’s Public Theater; Ben Brantley, of The New York Times, later called Gatz one of the best productions of the decade.
That was then. In the intervening years, ERS has staged chapters from novels by Faulkner and Hemingway, as well as plays written by some of its more than 30 members, and made a stab at Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. I’ve been enjoying the group’s efforts almost since its inception—another Voice colleague, James Hannaham, was a founding member—and I’m prone to conclude that it does better when transforming pieces from other genres, such as novels, than when it attempts the great plays of the theatrical canon.
The Seagull, in Chekhov’s original, is already a play about theatrical types and contains a great deal of high-flown rhetoric about art. It opens with a fragment of a play by Konstantin, a member of the younger, more experimental generation. Played by Gavin Price, he’s the son of a middle-aged actress, Irina (Kate Benson), who takes better care of herself than she does of him, with predictable results. He’s desperately unhappy, and madly in love with Nina, the daughter of a neighbor, who dreams of being an actress herself.
ERS’s version, in development over the course of the pandemic, arrives at the Skirball with a prologue that brings to mind Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, in which the character of the Stage Manager sets up the story before anything happens. In this Seagull, Semyon, a poor school teacher, played by Pete Simpson, takes a long time setting the scene. His beloved Masha, daughter of the property manager of the estate on which the play takes place, returns from a swim; in Chekhov’s text, this is merely discussed, but here it’s acted out with contemporary-style beach towels. Masha, played by ERS founding member Susie Sokol (an actual school teacher IRL), gets a lot of stage time; 30 years into her tenure with the group she looks little different than when she began, in the early ’90s, and is still compelling.
The prologue is conceived in the manner of a post-performance talkback, with one microphone on a long cable handed up and down the row of performers, who are seated on black folding chairs. Semyon moderates this exercise, which parodies the many announcements that now precede evenings in the theater. It’s intermittently funny, and apparently adored by the many theatrical professionals who’ve been attending previews of Seagull at the Skirball, but, ultimately, it adds about 15 mostly unnecessary minutes to what is already a long play.
The break between the last two acts is indicated by five excruciating minutes of silence, darkness, and stillness, during which the actors stand immobilized as soft beams play on them from the sides of the huge stage. Making spectators sit through this is a great deal to ask, especially two hours into the production and two years and change into an attention-span-wrecking pandemic.
In both the Chekhov original and this version, women throw themselves at men who misuse or ignore them. Issues of sexism, classism, and labor relations are threaded through both texts, as is a focus on the mental health of artists. The cosmopolitan novelist Boris, played here by Robert M. Johanson as hip and self-absorbed, wearing shades throughout, seems to be the boyfriend of actress Irina, but flirts with the much younger Nina, who identifies with the seagull of the title. Nina, played well by Maggie Hoffman, presents Boris with a pendant inscribed with the page and line number of one of his texts; he orders the book brought to him and stands, bemused, facing fully front, reading her encoded message aloud. His decision to pursue her wreaks the expected havoc on his mistress, Irina, the older actress, and incidental havoc on other members of the community.
Act 1 comes in at about 90 minutes. Acts 2 and 3 are compressed into a slightly shorter second half—confusing, as Chekhov’s third act happens two years after the second, when many life changes have taken place. In ERS’s version, the break between the last two acts is indicated by five excruciating minutes of silence, darkness, and stillness, during which the actors stand immobilized as soft beams play on them from the sides of the huge stage. Making spectators sit through this is a great deal to ask, especially two hours into the production and two years and change into an attention-span-wrecking pandemic.
Finally, a few lights come up and a set of raggedy curtains drifts toward center stage, looking as if they’ve been through a fire. A card game ensues at a table with 10 chairs that sits upstage. Sokol’s Masha dances in front of the table. The youngest members of this extended family, former sweethearts Nina and the tortured Konstantin, are missing from the gathering. In the two elapsed years, the young playwright and his lost beloved have found some fame, but perhaps their success has come too late.
This version of Seagull contains two of my theatrical deal-breakers: It’s often hard to hear the dialogue, and a lot of the action takes place in the dark, or in remote corners of the stage. Director John Collins has the performers playing almost all of the drama directly to the audience instead of to other characters in a scene, a bewildering choice that cripples otherwise fine actors and makes it hard to understand who is angry at or in love with whom.
I have to confess that my deepest appreciation of this project is the fact that it drove me to reread the original Chekhov, a far more affecting experience than what has been presented by Elevator Repair Service. The endings of the two plays are identical. The beginnings and the middles are, unfortunately, dramatically different. ❖
Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater, and books for the Village Voice and other publications since 1983. She runs writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, has studied many forms of dance, and has taught in the Hollins University MFA dance program.
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