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BWW Reviews: PLAYHOUSE Gets Serious With THE SEAGULL

Staging a play by Henrik Ibsen or Anton Chekhov poses certain problems for theatre groups. On the one hand, there is a commitment to "the classics" - and there is an opportunity for actors (especially young ones) to examine their talents and extend them in directions they have not gone before. The "downside" is the reputation such plays have as "talkfests," for they are often deliberate and detailed in their construction of characters and relationships. I was reminded of this during both the performance and the intermission of Playhouse on the Square's production of Chekhov's THE SEAGULL (which, literally, follows on the "heels" of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW). During Intermission, two couples stood next to my seat and discussed the play. With a hint of apology, one lady stated, "The actors are very good, but I really prefer the musicals." Yet, as I watched and listened to the play, I glanced at one audience member, leaning forward and rapt in concentration; and further down my row, another could audibly be heard gasping at the insensitivity of "Madame Arkandina" toward her son.

Chekhov's insight into human nature and foibles was always a source of fascination to me ("The Lady With the Pet Dog" is one of my favorite short stories), and in this play it's as if "Puck" from Shakespeare's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM mismatched everyone on a Russian estate. The difference, of course, is that Shakespeare's work is ethereal and light, while THE SEAGULL ends in tragedy. Almost every character in the play is in love with someone else, and when that "someone else" fails to respond, all options are played out - "Dr. Dorn" is sensibly resigned to being without "Arkandina," "Masha" tries to convince herself that she might as well settle for the pedestrian "Medvedenko" instead of Arkandina's frustrated son "Konstantin," and Konstantin, realizing that his Nina is infatuated with "Trigorin," his mother's lover, even tries to commit suicide. The dissatisfied "Nina," however, determined to leave behind rural surroundings and become an actress, decides to follow Trigorin and Arkandina to Moscow - with disastrous results.

THE SEAGULL is a masterful, challenging play, and it works on so many levels. Acknowledging the influence of Shakespeare, Chekhov even borrows from him -- there's a play within a play, ultimately ruined by interruptions; lines from HAMLET are quoted; and, perhaps most important, there is the plot thread of a son competing for his mother's love and attention. Moreover, the play is peppered with actors and writers -- and would-be actors and writers. Poor Konstantin, with his impressionistic, demanding writing (only the doctor intuitively knows he's on to something) is juxtaposed with the established (yet less talented) Trigorin. In fact, it's not a stretch to assume that Chekhov himself must have seriously explored the dilemma of being a ground-breaking artist; he also knew the price that dedication to one's art can exact. (The celebrated actress may snub her nose at material she does not understand, but the great parts she brags about playing have taught her nothing about her personal life; she may enact great souls on a stage, but she herself has a crimped one.)

While THE SEAGULL has a lengthy running time, it seems much faster - partly because of the number of fascinating personalities and partly because of the efficient pacing of Director Irene Crist, who works with a fine cast of veterans and young performers. As "Sorin," the retired Justice and brother of the mercurial Arkandina, bewhiskered Jim Palmer lends poignance and substance; infirm and wistful over the fact that he never pursued his dreams or ventured beyond the estate, he is a formidable presence (I kept thinking - what a marvelous KING LEAR he would be). As the aging, self-centered Arkandina, Tamara Scott is preening and brittle, though she has momentary twinges of conscience. Twirling her parasol and sashaying about, she is thoughtless in her cruelty, upstaging her son's play and ignoring his writing efforts. (Her relationship with Konstantin wasn't entirely alien from the Joan Crawford/Christina horror story in MOMMIE DEAREST.) Michael J. Ewing's Trigorin is mediocrity masquerading as talent (something the sensitive Konstantin realizes) - and spineless as well. Michael Gravois is grounded and sensitive as the discerning doctor; Jo Lynne Palmer, earthy and realistic as "Polina."

While all of these players are expectedly good, it was equally pleasing to find the younger cast members keeping thespic pace. As the angst-ridden "real" artist of the group, Oliver Jacob Pierce (who was so very good in BAD JEWS) offers a heart-rending performance; his individual scenes with the two women who keep him at arm's length - his mother and Nina - are among the best in the play. Morgan Howard, over whom I've raved in comedies and musicals, finally has an opportunity to exhibit real dramatic strength as "Nina," and she pulls off two spectacular speeches (one, the play within the play; the other, just before she disappears at the end). Julia Masotti's snuff-sniffing "Masha," dressed in black and bemoaning Konstantin's pursuit of another, is convincing as a young woman who knows that she is lying to herself when she says she can move forward; and as the diffident young man who wins her hand, Gabe Beutel-Gunn, who has impressed me in a number of roles this past year, is so in character that I had to check the program to see whether there might be an understudy in the part.

Interestingly, this play is being performed with some of the same cast in VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, which I intend to see next week. Rebecca Y. Powell is responsible for the exceptional costuming, and the stark but effective set is by Mark Guirguis. Through March 29.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)