BWW Review: Crow's Theatre THE SEAGULL

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The production of Chekov's "The Seagull," now on at the Berkley Street Theatre, is an uneven disappointment. It fails to engage. Like Theatre 20's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Company," presented in the same venue last year, this Crow's Theatre production does not deliver on its exciting promise.

Considered to be tragic and darkly comedic, there are few laughs. Worse, it is dull, boring and slow moving. At each nearly three-hour performance (with intermission) ... including the near capacity second night performance I attended ... audience members leave at intermission and don't return.

Here's a case where the public tends not to agree with many of Toronto's critics who have praised this production. However, I believe this is an example of reviewers admiring the cast and creative team's pedigree while disregarding its entertainment value.

"The Seagull's" plot centres on conflicts, both artistic and romantic, between four self-absorbed principal characters: Trigorin (played by Tom Rooney), Nina (Christine Horne), Arkadina (Yanna McIntosh) and Konstantin (Philip Riccio).

The play is set in 19th-century Tsarist Russia on a country estate. It's located on the shore of a lake owned by an ill, retired, disillusioned senior civil servant, played by Eric Peterson. It is now run by his sister Arkadina, a famous, though in decline, actress. She is also the lover of Trigorin, a well-known fiction writer/dilettante.

Arcadian's earnest son, Konstantin, is an emotionally unstable, aspiring symbolist playwright and Nina is an emerging ingénue.

Additional romances consist of Medvedenko (Gregory Prest), a schoolteacher, who loves Masha (Bahia Watson), daughter of the estate's steward, Shamrayev (Tony Nappo). But she's not interested. Her love is for Konstantin. However, it is unrequited as he loves Nina who rejects his attentions. Masha's mother, Polina (Tara Nicodemo), loves Dorn, a doctor (Tom McCamus).

As the play begins, guests arrive to attend a new play by Konstantin performed by Nina. She plays a "soul of the world" in the future. His symbolist intentions are impenetrable, Arkadina ridicules it as incomprehensible. When the play is interrupted, the humiliated Konstantin leaves. But Dorn encourages him.

And thus the story begins but as the exposition and the plot unravels, ironically nothing much actually happens for the next two-and-a-half hours. I suppose you could call it early Seinfeld, famously described by its creator as"a show about nothing".

Kidding aside, the play contrasts the characters' inner lives with their external relationships in an atmosphere of pre-revolution ennui and weltschmerz, evoked in part by the light and shadows cast on the dacha's walls by the evocative candle light that often bathes the set. This mysterious mood, created by lighting designer, Kimberly Purcell, is as effective here as it was in director Chris Abrahams' excellent production of "Othello" at the Stratford Festival in its 2013 season.

John Updike, the noted American author, once described the world of Argentine author Manuel Puig ("Kiss of the Spider Woman") as "a dark and harsh one, lit only by the thousand guttering candles of persistent human romanticism." The same can be said here of Anton Chekov and "The Seagull."

However, this production is uneven. Strengths are scenes featuring the Toms McCamus and Rooney and their effective, sub-textual delivery of their lines, complete with pregnant Pinteresque pauses. They say one thing, but imply another. This tends to capture attention, creating interest and heightening the dramatic tension.

The same cannot be said of Yanna McIntosh, a celebrated Stratford Festival actress. As Arkadina, she delivers her lines boldly and theatrically, but does not show us the real person behind the mask, especially her vulnerability. The role demands a wide range of emotion that is just not here.

Also, dare I ask, why did Abrahams cast a black woman in the part? What did he hope to achieve, dramatically or otherwise? We have many excellent white actresses who could have played the part. Shaw Festival veterans Moya O'Connell and Laurie Paton are two who come to mind.

And since Konstantin is Arkadina's son, shouldn't he be played by a black actor? For that matter, why not present an all-black cast?

Of course, I'm supportive of non-traditional/color-blind casting, but it's not appropriate here in my opinion as there were no black actresses in the theatre of Tsarist Russia of which we are aware. It's like casting a white actress as Queenie in "Show Boat."

The character of Nina, an aspiring actress with dreams of stardom, ultimately is forced to perform with a second-rate, travelling company. Tragically, she suffers the heartbreaking death of her and Trigorin's child.

Christine Horne's Nina does not portray the dramatic journey this gravitas demands. When she returns to tell Konstantin and then leaves again, her betrayal of his love causes (spoiler alert) Konstantin to destroy his manuscripts and shoot himself. Nina triggers Konstantin's suicide, but Horne fails to set that up emotionally. After her departure, as decisively as Nora slamming the door at the end of Ibsen's "A Doll's House," the dramatic pace should be like an out-of-control freight train. The tension should be fierce as the haunted Konstantin loses control She has to pull his heart out to cause him to destroy himself. Horne just does not play the arc of the character.

And that's the problem with this production. With a few exceptions, the cast does not create distinctive characters ... with distinctive voices, characteristics, mannerisms ... to make the play interesting. I just saw NT Live's broadcast of the London National Theatre's production of :"Treasure Island" at a local Cineplex which does just that - every character tends to be distinct with their own levels of intelligence and idiosyncratic behavior.

Moreover, there's little subtlety or nuances in Abraham's direction. He tends to go for the obvious, such as when Bahia Watson's Masha tears apart the bouquet of flowers her would be lover -- Gregory Prest's Medvedenko - gives to her. She rips the flowers off. Wouldn't it have been more effective had she pulled it apart petal by petal ... I love him "not" ... or in bunches then hurl what's left at him?

That's the kind of subtlety that says so much and keeps the drama meaningful and moving while further developing her character. Instead, we get the obvious. And there are many more examples where such moments could be developed instead of settling for the obvious, especially the wild extremes of Philip Riccio's screaming mania as the mama's boy, Konstantin. We have had no evidence he is a manic-depressive capable of (spoiler alert) committing suicide. His performance could have been much more intriguing if he explored, had he mined, Chekov's script. After, isn't contradiction in a character interesting? It certainly is in real life.

Furthermore, the symbolism of the seagull is over-played. Konstantin shoots and gives Nina a seagull midway in Act One. But Chekov's bird serves a greater dramatic purpose. It is commonly considered to represent personal freedom which, ironically, becomes Konstantin's albatross - the ideal he can never achieve. In other words, it is Nina, the woman he can never have. She often is also considered symbolically to be the seagull.

Yet, he overdoes it. In one of Abraham's tableaux during a scene change in Act Two, he has a Cossack aiming a rifle at Nina across a dining room table. It reminded me of a critic friend of mine in Vancouver who often says "Why the brick?" meaning, of course, "I get it."

Also, Julie Fox's set design is not "Russian" enough. She may have considered hanging an orthodox "Byzantine" cross with three horizontal crossbeams instead of two on the dining room wall. As for the white tablecloth, wouldn't a home of artistic people more likely have had one with colorful, though subtle, embroidered design? And the bread served at supper, wouldn't it have been braided?

As for Thomas Ryder Payne's soundscape, I get the chirping crickets that welcome us as the play begins, but why the repeated rolling thunder in the distance? If it's to foreshadow the play's conclusion, I don't need another "brick."

Now, the play's advertising hypes this play as featuring an "all-star Canadian cast" which is a canard. No matter whether this is a duck ... or seagull for that matter ... this isn't really true. (It reminds me of the US Harper's magazine contest that invited readers to come up with the most boring headline imaginable. The winner? "Worthwhile Canadian initiative!")

It's hard and challenging to have an all-star Canadian cast when the actors are, with the exception of Corner Gas' Eric Peterson, unknown to the average Canadian. Unfortunately, "Canadian star system" still remains an oxymoron right just like "jumbo shrimp," "military intelligence," "Progressive Conservative," and "Toronto Maple Leaf victory."

And really, what does it matter whether or not the cast are Canadian as long as they are good? In the spirit of non-traditional/color blind casting, if the color of performers' skin doesn't matter today, then should their nationality?

As actress Kate Nelligan once remarked after her career-making performance in David Hare's "Plenty" at London's National Theatre, perhaps "Canadian actors onstage should wear international diplomatic license plates!"

This production's sold-out audiences are, of course drawn by some of the cast and director's pedigree. The play features several prominent and talented Stratford Festival veterans including gifted director Chris Abrahams, Crow's artistic director and a winner of the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize. Rooney. McCamus, and Yanna McIntosh are from the Stratford Festival. And. of course, Eric Peterson, is popularly known for his role as Oscar Leroy on the aforementioned comedy series "Corner Gas."

Few Canadians know this legendary actor has had a distinguished career onstage, notably with Vancouver's Tomahnous Theatre that he helped found and where he began his career in 1971. He joined Theatre Passe Muraille in 1974 and starred in such notable productions as "The Farm Show," "Them Donnellys," and Rick Salutin's "1837: The Farmers' Revolt" in which he played William Lyon Mackenzie and Lady Backwash.

Peterson is perhaps best known for his celebrated performance in "Billy Bishop Goes to War," the musical he co-wrote with John Gray. It is arguably Canada's most famous and frequently produced musicals. It toured internationally, including London's West End and on Broadway and off-Broadway in 1980 and also Peterson received acclaim from the New York critics for his stirring, energetic, imaginative performance.

Yet, with all of this talent, this production of "The Seagull" reminds us you can't be brilliant all of the time. It's meretricious, promising much but delivering little.

"The Seagull" is the third and final year of Crow's Theatre's residency with Canadian Stage, said Matthew Jocelyn, the company's Artistic & General Director, he wrote in a program note. It has included such productions as Kristen Thomson's "Someone Else," "Winners and Losers" (a collaboration with New World Theatre and Vancouver's Theatre Replacement, and now "The Seagull."

In September 2016, Crow's Theatre plans to open its new $10.5 million community cultural facility, the first major theatre to do so west of the Don Valley, at the corner of Dundas St. E. and Carlaw St. It will offer affordable, contemporary theatre, arts events for all ages as well as wide-ranging community programming and partnerships, says its promotional material.

"The Seagull," a production of Crow's Theatre, runs until Feb. 8, 2015. For tickets, visit http://www.crowstheatre.com/. or www.canadianstage.com. Or call ( 416) 368-3110.



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From This Author Dennis Kucherawy

A veteran entertainment executive, Dennis Kucherawy has worked in film exhibition and live theatre on Broadway, in London's West End and in Canada. An award-winning (read more...)