First Nighter: The Bedlam Company Shoots and Wounds Chekhov’s “Seagull”

Before I get to the many reasons for my strongly objecting to the Bedlam company’s attack on Anton Chekhov’s great play, The Seagull, I want strongly to recommend their Sense & Sensibility adaptation, which my Huffington Post colleague has already praised.

Having seen that production earlier in their current two-play season–last year’s included Hamlet and Saint Joan–I was looking forward to The Seagull with great anticipation. So what I saw, at the Steen Center, was not only a major disappointment but also raised questions in my mind about policy and politics in a company as clearly adventurous and creative as Bedlam.

But before I even get to that I’d like to note that company member Jason O’Connell is giving an outstanding performance as the novelist Boris Trigorin. It’s not the usual interpretation of Madame Arkadina’s lover as self-impressed and manipulative about his accomplishments when seducing young and naïve would-be actress Nina.

The tall, dark, husky, round-faced O’Connell sees Trigorin as completely sincere on the man’s lack of belief in his success. This means that when Nina (Laura Baranik) returns in act four as a beaten, fallen woman, the report she gives on Trigorin’s treatment of her after she’s run away to join him doesn’t quite jibe with the man we’ve seen. Nevertheless, O’Connell is captivating whenever he’s on stage.

Now, however, to the production’s major affliction, which points to a potential problem companies such as Bedlam encounter when casting plays that don’t easily fit the members’ ages and abilities. What can unfortunately eventuate is that, in order to accommodate everyone, mistakes are made. Though Bedlam’s 10-members are all exactly right for Sense & Sensibility, the shoehorning in The Seagull goes terribly wrong.

Let’s just say that the beautiful, youthful Vaishnavi Sharma as the veteran Arkadina–with younger lover Trigorin and a son who says she doesn’t want him seen because her age then becomes more apparent–simply shouldn’t be in the role. She certainly shouldn’t be when son Konstantin (Eric Tucker, who also directs) appears just on the cusp of being too old for his assignment.

At one point Arkadina insists that she can still play Juliet. When she claims this, no audience member can be chided for thinking she should be playing Juliet. Attempting to compensate for the misjudgment, Sharma pushes Akadina’s actress-y manner and affects an unconvincing hoity-toity actress-y accent.

The curious aspect of the situation is that there’s a company member who would be an ideal Arkadina: the impressive Bedlam co-founder (with Tucker) Andrus Nichols. Instead, she’s present as Masha and doing a convincing job–or would be convincing if she didn’t come off as about the same age as, or slightly older than, John Russell and Kate Hamill, who play her parents, Shamrayev and Polina.

Nichols is such a fine actor that while watching her, I started to imagine her in all sorts of classic parts she’d undoubtedly enhance–not to mention my also imagining the imposing performance she’d give as Arkadina. Perhaps it’s the manifold skills that make her want to stretch herself by choosing not to do the obvious thing–take on Arkadina–in favor of the unexpected.

Maybe it’s the inclination not to do the expected that underlies all the casting decisions for this Seagull. If that’s the case, it runs counter to Chekhov’s strict requirements for a fully effective outing.

There is one piece of untraditional casting that does work. The cameo-profiled Samantha Steinmetz is Medvedenko, the earnest but socially clumsy fellow gone on Masha. In the roles that are more or less cast properly, Nigel Gore as Dorn definitely looks right when more than once he gives the moody doctor’s age as 55. His is among the too few worthy portrayals.

In her early scenes Baranik as Nina comes across as slightly more sophisticated than the standard Ninas. As directed by Tucker, her performance in Konstantin’s pretentious play-within-the-play is particularly amusing. She also executes Nina’s fourth-act return (the intermission follows the first two acts) with finesse, not something always accomplished. As the aging and ailing Petrusha Sorin, Stephan Wolfert does sufficiently well.

A cassette player blasting tunes underneath a hammock on John McDermott’s set signals to the entering audience that Anya Reiss’s version is modern-day. It’s an approach that Angela Huff’s denim-heavy costumes confirm when the cast emerges to talk among themselves before launching into the play. It remains real when, for instance, sound designers Tucker and Katie Young send a plane over Arkadina’s country retreat.

Reiss’s choice isn’t unusual these days. It’s the second Chekhov updating I’ve seen in a month. The other was a superb Cherry Orchard at London’s Young Vic. I suppose I don’t mind the notion–not when Reiss includes a computer on which Konstantin works and then, in his despair, which he destroys.

Nonetheless, it’s annoying and hardly fresh when adapters such as Reiss and her London colleague decide that were Chekhov writing today, he would make sure his characters used “fucking” at least a few times in their outbursts. Totally unnecessary. Nor do I see the need to call the fourth-act card game played “Bullshit.”

Reiss does something else that grated on me, although it’s only a petty infringement in the context of this treatment’s larger transgressions. Chekhov lovers know that when at the start of The Seagull Medvedenko asks Masha why she always wears black, she replies, “I’m in mourning for my life.” Not here. When this Medvedenko asks Masha why she always wears black, she says, “I’m in mourning.” Full stop. Medvedenko then asks what’s she in mourning for, and she comes back with, “For my life.” Maybe Reiss has gone to Chekhov’s script–in Russian, of course–and discovered that’s how he wrote the exchange. If so, I stand corrected.

If not, leave it alone, and also trust the casting obligations. Seeing it any other way is madness. Throughout The Seagull, the characters talk about happiness and of what it’s constituted. They all want to be happy. Not one of them is. At this revival, I was in their unhappy number.