URI stages Chekhov’s head-spinning Seagull

Writing what he knows
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  December 7, 2011

UNREQUITED LOVERS Miles Boucher and Nora Eschenheimer in The Seagull.

Although Anton Chekhov's The Seagull is hardly a comedy, a humorously autobiographical moment comes when an aspiring writer complains that his work will forever be marginalized by comparisons with Tolstoy and Turgenev.

A staging by the University of Rhode Island Theatre through December 11, directed by Bryna Wortman, gives us a good portrayal of that frustration plus innumerable romantic ones.

A loves B but marries C because B loves D, who loves E but eventually returns to B. Meanwhile, K, L, and M . . . . It's that sort of plot.

A masterful slice-of-life short story writer, Chekhov penned four unsuccessful plays before this one in 1895. Four years later came a creative stumble with The Tragedian In Spite of Himself before he continued with a trifecta of world literature classics, Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard.

But at age 36 he put much of himself into The Seagull, if we can judge from his examining the perspectives of two unhappy writers, a mediocre playwright, and a best-selling but trivial novelist. This play's premiere was badly received but did well two years later when it found a director who could pipe all its emotional notes, the brilliant acting theorist Constantin Stanislavski.

How can audiences resist a play whose first two lines are: "Why do you always wear black?" followed by "I am in mourning for my life"? The lugubrious one is Masha (Shannon Hartman), the young daughter of the estate manager on the lakeside country property on which all the dramatics ensue. We immediately see that these inner lives are going to be unusually complex when she also points out that "even a beggar can be happy," after the poor schoolmaster she's speaking to (Birk Wozniak) complains about money problems.

Masha is too poor herself to be realistically in love with Konstantin Treplev (Andrew T. Burnap), known as Kostya, the son of the owner of this summer vacation spot. He is in love with Nina Zarechny (Nora Eschenheimer), whose father is also a wealthy landowner. To entertain guests she delivers a lengthy monologue, packed by Kostya with symbolism and world-soul pretentiousness, that Kostya's mother, Irina Arkadina (Julia Mary Bailey), abruptly halts by shouting that it's badly written drivel.

Irina is a successful, ridiculously vain actress, the above hammy arrogance being typical of her. She is in love with a popular author, Boris Trigorin (Miles Boucher). He eventually gives in to Irina's imploring affections, since she's such a good actress, though he carries a torch for Nina.

In case there weren't enough obsessive romantic attachments, Chekhov has Polina (Kira Hawkridge), the wife of the estate manager, secretly smitten with a doctor friend of Irina, Yevgeny Dorn (Joshua Andrews).

Yes, it's not easy to follow all the soap opera hooking up without a spreadsheet, not to mention that these people have three names, mercifully abbreviated above.

Some seagull or other comes into play frequently. Kostya shoots one out of the sky merely from irritability. It gets stuffed and mounted, largely so that we can work out that bonus symbolism.

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