The Seagull is Anton Chekhov’s brilliant tragicomedy about a famous actress-diva, her “failed” artist son and their retinue of friends, relatives and servants whose get-togethers on her vacation estate take on a party atmosphere that is more cannibalistic feast than pleasurable restful retreat. The setting is Russia in the late 1890s, but the nature, characters and elements of the play are timeless.
In his work Chekhov uses subtle, painterly writing to color the action and events imbuing them with powerful themes. By the play’s conclusion his various characters have experienced the betrayal and loss of innocence, the festering waste of destroyed dreams, the soul corruption of the artist who lacks purpose or fulfillment, and the disintegration of the comforting myth that love produces happiness and peace. In this as in his other plays, Chekhov is the supreme poetic ironist who eviscerates and exposes the miry clay of humanity with his weighty characterizations. It is as if he revels in laying bare their inanities, pitiable weaknesses and joyless self-importances. No one is safe from Chekhov’s sardonic humor; we recognize ourselves blatant and unforgiving in their nuanced behavior.
It is fitting that the Mississippi Mud players should roll up their talented and soulful sleeves to get down in the muck of Chekhov humanity by embracing a modernized Seagull, updating the play’s setting. Seagull 69 directed by Austin Pendleton and performed by the Mississippi Mud ensemble is set in Los Angeles’s Benedict Canyon in 1969. It is a superb choice given the location near Hollywood and the movie industry and the time frame when American culture was on the brink of revolution and devolution. The tenets and ironies of the play suit well this setting, a backdrop which brings the themes into stark relief. An estate on Cielo Drive (evoking the freedom of the sky) couldn’t be more perfect in its vapidity; it’s a place where the characters’ hopes remain elusive, their high-handed “amusing” society a wasted devastation.
Chekhov immediately introduces us to the devolving characters and their mud wallows. The first is the estate manager’s daughter, the dour Masha (Patricia Perales), dressed in black hippie garb because she is “mourning” her life. Wearily, she confides to Dr. Dorn (a gem of a performance by Austin Pendleton) that she loves Konstantine (the fine Michael Arena). She knows the situation is hopeless, for Konstantine is in love with the beautiful Nina (Jen Danby is sterling ), a neighbor whom he has cast to read his innovative and groundbreaking play that evening. Dr. Dorn provides Masha no comforting wisdom or useful advice. She is stuck in her misery, incapable of coming to the end of herself and her unrequited love. With this opening scene, Chekhov reveals the theme of relationship impossibilities that by the end of the play becomes interwoven with the theme of misplaced love bringing hell, torment and destruction in all of the characters’ lives, save Dr. Dorn (he is without a partner).
Present for the play reading are Dr. Dorn, Konstantine (the budding writer/artist), his mother, actress Arkadina (a wonderful Maureen Mooney) whom he is desperate to please, and her lover, the successful writer Trigorin (attractively indolent and superb in his disaffected success). As Nina enacts her role in Konstantine’s play, we perceive her vibrant, translucent innocence and we understand how Konstantine could love her and be consumed by thoughts of her. For her part, Arkadina disdains the play and disrupts Nina’s performance, garnering attention, most especially to engage and distract Trigorin from his engrossed watching of Nina. Devastated at his mother’s response and jealous of Trigorin, Konstantine explodes into fury and storms out of the room leaving Arkadina to pick up the shambles of the evening. Afterward Nina, entranced by Trigorin’s fame and celebrity, connects with him as he with her, foreshadowing their future involvement.
The seeds have been sown and we have only to note the ironies and glean how the morose and tragic human plants grow and bloom into poisonous flowers. Konstantine destroys himself for his love of Nina who is destroyed for her love of self-involved Trigorin. Trigorin, obsessed with himself and his writing, uses and abuses Nina then returns to Arkadina out of indolent self-loathing. Arkadina, afraid of being alone, is obsessed with Trigorin and clings to a loveless relationship with him despite his affair with Nina. Masha marries the schoolteacher to remind herself she doesn’t love him. Her situation and the other characters’ situations form a trenchant abyss of self-destruction, their self-harm encompassing all present. These themes are made more pronounced with the 1960s stylization. Only Dr. Dorn, the friend of the family, remains aloof, beyond the others’ poisonous vapors and their self-destruction. Yet he is the unfortunate soul who must relinquish the truth to articulate the ultimate tidings of doom.
Within the fitting confines of a small acting space, expertly staged by Pendleton and well employed by the actors, the production creates the feeling of mental claustrophobia which the characters impose on each other. Yet it is a surfeit of room in which to enact their wanderings and self-damages. The excellent performances are intimate, credible, real, moment-to-moment. Special kudos go to Jen Danby, Andy McCutcheon, Maureen Mooney, Michael Arena, Nick DeSimone, and Austin Pendleton’s precision acting and directing. Pendleton doesn’t miss a beat.
Danby’s smothering of Nina’s light and soul by degrees is breathtaking. Her exploration of Nina’s polluted and tainted being exacted during the end scene with Konstantine where she paws and taunts him gives credence to Konstantine’s mortal response, making it all the more believable. Mooney’s Arkadina is the perfect diva, oozing self-importance, yet desolate when in groveling humiliation she begs Trigorin to stay with her. Andy McCutcheon’s response to Arkadina’s importunate seductions and demands is priceless. The ensemble has achieved an apparent comfort with each other, enough to infuse the character relationships with heft and brilliance. I found myself laughing and yet wanting to cry because of their very real portrayals which allowed this Seagull 69 to shine.
Seagull 69 was performed at The Alexander Technique Center for Performance and Development from January 24 through February 17.
Seagull 69 cast: Michael Arena, Charles Black, Jen Danby, Nick DeSimone, Annettte Hunt, Albert Insinnia, Andy McCutcheon, Maureen Mooney Patricia Perales, Austin Pendleton, Lei Zhou, Dana Zurkowski.