BWW Review: Huntington Theatre Company's THE SEAGULL: Artists at Work
Written by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Paul Schmidt, Directed by Maria Aitken; Scenic Design, Ralph Funicello; Costume Design, Robert Morgan; Lighting Design, James F. Ingalls; Sound Design, Drew Levy; Original Music by Mark Bennett; Production Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen; Assistant Stage Manager, Jeremiah Mullane
CAST: Kate Burton, Morgan Ritchie, Ted Koch, Auden Thornton, Nancy E. Carroll, Thomas Derrah, Nael Nacer, Meredith Holzman, Don Lee Sparks, Mark Vietor, June Baboian, Kyle Cherry, Melissa Jesser, Jeff Marcus
Kate Burton and her son Morgan Ritchie play mother and son onstage for the first time, and that's just the start of the good news about the Huntington Theatre Company production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull at the BU Theatre. Director Maria Aitken, who stepped in when former artistic director of the Huntington Nicholas Martin withdrew, doesn't miss a beat with an accomplished ensemble that includes a mix of local favorites and Broadway veterans. Scenic Designer Ralph Funicello and Costume Designer Robert Morgan, who collaborated to design The Cherry Orchard at HTC in 2007, work their magic again to create the world of Sorin's lakeside estate.
Achieving the atmosphere of the estate is vital as the playground, or battleground, for Chekhov's characters, a brooding bunch of artists whose desires for love, acclaim, and success go mostly unrequited or unfulfilled. Nearly everyone longs for someone who does not return their ardor, or at least not in equal measure, and they lead lives of not-so-quiet desperation. The idyllic, wooded setting of the first two acts seems to mock their discontent; Sorin (Thomas Derrah) complains about a barking dog and life in the country, Masha (Meredeith Holzman) explains that she wears black all the time because she's in mourning for her life, and Medvedenko (Nael Nacer) bemoans his poverty and the fact that Masha is indifferent to him, despite his great love for her. None of the ten main characters has a really bad life, but they each have something to bemoan, be it unrequited love, aging, lack of wealth, or want of a horse. When the action moves to the interior of the house after intermission, the muted palette of the décor and the earth tones of the costumes add to the quality of world-weariness.
Burton plays the narcissistic actress Irina Arkadina who brings her lover, the famous novelist Trigorin (Ted Koch) with her to visit her son Konstantin (Ritchie), an aspiring playwright struggling to find his voice and win the love of Nina (Auden Thornton). Hoping for a life on the stage herself, Nina gives a solo performance in Konstantin's symbolist play, but spurns him romantically. Arkadina and the others ridicule his play, humiliating him and establishing a pattern of immature, churlish behavior on his part. Only the physician Dorn (Marc Vietor) praises his work, eliciting a bear hug from the grateful young man. What he truly wants is to be noticed and loved by his mother, even as he tries to escape the shadow of her fame and self-involvement. She loves him in her own way, but her son's presence is a constant reminder that she is no longer the ingénue, and Burton's ability to inhabit her character's duality is masterful.
In creating his characters, Chekhov is a master of nuance, layering jealousy atop insecurity atop immaturity, or hero worship atop naiveté, or egotism atop obliviousness. Aitken and company examine the components, finding the humor and the humanity within each, and use all of the elements to build their portrayals. Despite her hangdog appearance, Masha is droll with Holzman's languid movements and delivery of her lines. When Trigorin revels in the starry-eyed adoration he receives from Nina, but rants about the writer's life, Koch finds a balance between his good fortune and feelings of frustration. He shows his internal struggle between wanting to go with Nina, while being afraid to risk Arkadina's reaction, or give up a sure thing.
Thornton shows great range on Nina's journey from country mouse to city mouse, with equal ability to convince as the fresh, young girl in thrall to fame, as well as the worldlier, sullied woman who has seen her dreams dashed by reality. As Konstantin's disappointments mount, Ritchie appears more sullen and his body language demonstrates the weight of his discontent. In their final scene together, her sweet innocence is gone and his last, frayed shreds of hope disintegrate, leaving an aura of defeat hanging in the room.
In supporting roles, Derrah, Nacer, and Nancy E. Carroll stand out, contributing as much by their silent presence and facial expressions as when they speak. Derrah is almost unrecognizable as Arkadina's aging (60!) brother, thanks to the magic of makeup and facial hair, and it seems to free him to melt into the character. Playing Medvedenko with undeniable hopefulness mixed into his despair, Nacer draws our sympathy, while Carroll makes us feel her forlorn longing for the doctor along with her distaste for her husband Shamrayev (Don Lee Sparks), the loud, blustery know-it-all who manages the estate. Vietor captures Dorn's understated style, realizing that people are drawn to him for his good looks and the nature of his profession. June Baboian, Kyle Cherry, Melissa Jesser, and Jeff Marcus play an assortment of household servants who rearrange furniture between scenes (underscored by Mark Bennett's original music), bring tea, carry luggage, and quietly add flavor to the surroundings.
Complementing Funicello's scenic design, James F. Ingalls inconspicuously alters the lighting, but you will suddenly notice the full moon has risen high in the sky, while the background has deepened from sunset pink to evening blue. Drew Levy provides clear sound offstage for unseen conversations, piano music, and the climactic gunshot, as well as ominous winds to accompany the final scenes. Using a translation by the late Paul Schmidt, who, according to his bio in the program, "was one of the most influential critics, translators and playwrights of his time," the Huntington's production feels fresh and relevant, albeit a little too modern with an occasional anachronistic term. However, very minor quibbles aside, it is obvious that these people know what they are doing and The Seagull rises on the thrust of its star power.