The background of The Seagull Project contains the kind of fascinating, tantalizing color that’s irresistible lede fodder for feature writers everywhere. (Critics too, I guess.) A group of veteran Seattle actors rehearsed Anton Chekhov’s seminal play The Seagull for nine months, workshopping the material in weekly sessions. The subtextual density of Chekhov could certainly demand that kind of rigorous, lengthy preparation process, but it’s still an unusual enough origin story that it might threaten to overshadow the actual work.
That is, it might have if the work wasn’t so invigorating, muscular and exquisitely realized. The Seagull Project’s production is filled to the brim with rich, layered performances that display the kind of second-skin comfort that one hopes would emerge from a nine-month gestation. Only rarely do we see flashes of histrionics or collapses into melodrama that the material is capable of evoking if reduced to its most obvious qualities. The Seagull demands more than a surface treatment if it’s to be more than a tale of unrequited love and flailing attempts to secure approval, and it certainly gets it here.
Set at the lakeside country estate of former government employee Sorin (Mark Jenkins), The Seagull finds his famous actress sister Arkadina (Julie Briskman) arriving with her beau, Trigorin (John Bogar), a middlebrow novelist whose great popularity is not accompanied by any sense of personal satisfaction. Arkadina’s star is fading, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it judging by the intense relationship she has with her son Konstantin (Brandon J. Simmons), who feels overshadowed by his mother. He simultaneously longs for her approval and wishes to relegate her to a place of insignificance.
As the play opens, Konstantin stages an experimental theater piece starring Nina (Alexandra Tavares), an aspiring actress who Konstantin is desperately in love with, but his mother laughs it off the stage and the rest of the audience is left befuddled, save for Dorn (Peter Crook), a doctor and family friend. While Konstantin pines for Nina, he’s obsessed over by Masha (Hanna Victoria Franklin), the daughter of the estate manager and his wife (John Abramson, Julie Jamieson).
The swirling romantic fortunes and a mutual feeling of hope and dread over one’s place in the world unite the guests in a variety of permutations that offers each character the opportunity to become a fully formed human being. Chekhov’s characters have vast internal words, and each actor has mined something unexpected here. I was especially taken with Simmons’ pseudo-intellectual, regressive man-child and Briskman’s brutally manipulative streak — the pair’s dynamic reaches a fever pitch in a third act scene where she changes his bandage and an escalating power struggle turns both pathetic and nasty.
Tavares makes a superb transformation in the final act, demolishing her ingénue’s optimism into a nearly unrecognizable morass of dashed hopes and self-flagellation, while Bogar finds the beating heart beneath the smarm. CT Doescher is a small wonder as Medvedenko, a fundamentally decent schoolteacher who loves Masha and is often shunted off to the side by his far more conflict-prone companions. Doescher slowly disintegrates in the background; it’s a masterful turn that takes place almost entirely in the margins.
There’s a lot to pay attention to in the margins of The Seagull, and John Langs’ unhurried direction offers the audience ample opportunity to let their eyes wander across Jennifer Zeyl’s simple but effective scenic design and appreciate the numerous complexities of the performances. This is absolutely the kind of production you’d love to take in more than once, but at least get there once if you can. The Seagull is on stage at ACT Theatre though Feb. 10. Tickets are available for purchase online.