Thursday, December 18, 2008

Different Isn't Always Good

Hello and good riddance to the unconscionable revival of The Seagull, a London import with a fine cast and savagely tone-deaf direction closing at the Walter Kerr soon, but not soon enough.

For once I'm not even looking in the program for the name of the director. The funny thing about Chekhov is you read it and it sounds foolproof, in your head. Apparently, some take this as a challenge. Mr. X's concept announces itself immediately: Medvedenko enters and delivers the first half of one of theater's best-known entrance lines--"Why do you always..." and Masha raises her hand to stop him, and doesn't let him finish ("wear black?") for a moment. I can think of two things that are going on with this, and both of them help to explain how awful this revival is.

#1: Work under the assumption that The Seagull is a boring old play and needs freshening up. Try anything. The worse the better, because worseness is unfamiliar, so it looks like you've done something. Continue this ethos of worseness by finding what is loathesome in every character, despite Chekhov's eternal sympathy for his creations, and amplify it to the point of farce.

#2: Notice that Chekhov's characters often are as unhappy as they are because they're unable to listen to one another. Amplify, again, to the point of farce, but this time from both ends: on the one hand, none of them really hears the others, rarely anyway. On the other, the characters so overbroadcast every emotion (cf: Kristen Scott Thomas' blood curdling scream, really only one shot in a barrage, though between ludicrous outbursts she is almost frustratingly exquisite) that the audience is left with no choice but to laugh at the apparent imbeciles parading before them. Add a laugh track, if desired, because what you have now is a sitcom.

The worst casualty of this approach is the scene where Arkadina changes her son's bandages. Mind, he has already entered with his head bandaged from a suicide attempt, and the audience is so clobbered by the aesthetic of this performance that they find this funny. I don't even think this is the "hey everyone, we paid for this so it'd better be fun" problem I've whined about; I think it was set up this way. Anyway the scene is unbreakably moving, and was so here, except that in the context of what was around it, it felt baffling and unprocessable.

Oh hang on, I'm going to back up. Even before the hijinx with the first line (which Masha, by the way, answers "I'm in mourning for my life," which is exactly where you get to decide whether to present her as an object for ridicule or a tart and often overdramatic character, troubled but basically sympathetic...three guesses how she was presented here) this production did that thing you're hearing a lot if you go to plays much, the sound design that telegraphs seriousness by means of echoes, a drone, and some harmonics. Hello, is this the Moratorium Department? Well, can you please connect me, then?

Konstantin, by the way, is played by Mackenzie Crook, perhaps known to you as Gareth in the original, British "The Office." It was actually an interesting idea, I think, to cast someone who with true genius portrayed one of the most annoying people ever born. Maybe he had some range, a way to make Konstantin worth caring about when the play gives us many chances not to like him--from the brief play within a play, an almost offhanded sketch of well-intentioned dramatic drivel. Or maybe he doesn't.

Most puzzling of all was Peter Sarsgaard, a fine film actor who I am still going to assume has acting chops that will carry over to the stage, but who here seemed to have some deeply complex, outwardly ungraspable idea about who Trigorin is, evidenced by a wandering accent and tortured prosody I've never heard the like of in human speech.

Nina was portrayed by, oh someone. The "let's fix up this old character" concept assigned to her appeared to be that Nina was unhinged from the beginning. I just don't know what to say about this. I guess it's possible, but it's so out of left field I honestly [hey, spoiler alert...stop reading if you don't know how The Seagull ends] wondered if they were going to pull something in the end where Yakov (who was made to lurch around menacingly at times) turns out to have murdered Konstantin, who in fact did not kill himself at all!!!!

Have I ever mentioned Vanya on 42nd Street in these moronic pages? I'm going to now, because it's a fine corrective to what I saw last night. Because the thing is, Chekhov sometimes presents his characters with rather mercurial changes of temperament and motivation, and if you watch the first act of VO42, you will see how this looks when it's done well. Julianne Moore, not an actress I love, works a kind of magic doing this, and it's one of the most magnetic performances I know of. I had to watch an act of it when I got home to reassure myself.

This is not to say that there's only one way to do Chekhov, but I did find myself thinking all 3 hours about what was going wrong. The only major thing I can think of that went right was the pacing...actually in contrast to the production at BAM last season, the one you could only get tickets to when it wasn't Ian McKellan, which is exactly what we did. That production was torpid and inert, though not actively wrong. In this one, the hours flew by like minutes; ah, but what lousy minutes!

Somehow, despite all this, the first half the last act was what Chekhov should be, a shaded, heightened version of a plausible human tableau. Oh and not for nothing, as long as I've spoiled, thanks to the sound team for once for making the shot from the other room a discreet thing. Like Mrs. Parker at Ibsen plays, I practically sit there with my fingers in my ears waiting for the inevitable. After 3 1/2 acts of this, I thought of the story of the world's worst production of the Diary of Anne Frank (you've heard this one. "She's under the stairs!" says an audience member) I wanted to write him a little note, maybe fold it into a paper airplane, about what gauge to use so as to finish the job.


La Cieca said...

Why do you always wear black?

Why do you always wear black?

Why do you always wear black?

Why do you always wear black?

Why do you always wear black?

Why do you always wear black?

"Ha ha ha you see dahlings, acting is easy! Anyone can do it!"

La Cieca said...

"The fact is, Konstantin has shot..."

[Pause. Arkadina looks wildly around the room, checking to see that everyone is there and still standing. Hold for laugh.]

"... uh, himself."

[Arkadina rolls her eyes, slaps forehead. Hold for laugh and applause.]


armerjaquino said...

Nina is the radiant Carey Mulligan, who's a hell of an actor- I didn't see this production in London but I'm surprised she didn't make more of an impression, although it sounds as if the production doesn't help her.

I'm sad to hear about Sarsgaard's performance, though. I'm pretty much in love with him, you see.

Will said...

Very unfortunate. I've designed all the major Chekhov plays (Seagull and Cherry Orchard twice) except Three Sisters, and several of the one acts. I've always found working on Chekhov a very great challenge and equally great pleasure. There really isn't a superfluous word anywhere. He creates wonderful imagery and atmosphere to work with, and the characters are incredibly well drawn.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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