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Chekhov Takes Wing | The Nation

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Chekhov Takes Wing

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"Stop all printing of my play. I shall never write
another one again." So wrote the frustrated young Dr. Chekhov to his
publisher the morning after his new play, The Seagull, was
booed off the stage by an audience in St. Petersburg, outraged by its
incomprehensibility and Symbolist decadence.

This
disastrous opening night, on October 17, 1896, at the Alexandrinsky
Theater, is a legend in theater history. So is the fate of The
Seagull
itself. The play, which Chekhov doubted would ever be
performed again, went on to crown the inaugural season of the Moscow
Art Theater two years later in a stunning turnaround, introducing a
confident young director/actor named Stanislavsky and a passionate
young actress named Olga Knipper (who later became the playwright's
wife). It was followed by three other masterpieces from the same
author for that theater company (Uncle Vanya, The Three
Sisters
and The Cherry Orchard), creating a quartet of
"new forms" and paving the way for the twentieth-century revolution
called modern drama.

And now, 106 years after this
controversial masterpiece was written, The Seagull is again
taking center stage, as the theatrical event of the new decade in an
arresting production at the Public Theater's Shakespeare in Central
Park during August, proving theater can indeed still be the center of
culture.

This Seagull reunites acclaimed director
Mike Nichols with illustrious screen star Meryl Streep (they did
Silkwood, Heartburn and Postcards From the Edge
together), who is appearing on the stage after an absence of
twenty years. (Her last performance was in Alice in Concert,
also at the Public, in 1981, and it was she who approached him with
the idea to do The Seagull together.) Nichols, who has lured
stars to the stage with Chekhov before (his Uncle Vanya in
1973 at Circle in the Square featured George C. Scott, Julie Christie
and Nicol Williamson), has assembled a luminous cast that is
attracting queues outside the Delacorte Theater that rival those at
Madison Square Garden. John Goodman, Marcia Gay Harden, Philip
Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Debra Monk, Larry Pine, Natalie
Portman, Stephen Spinella and Christopher Walken (yes, all of them,
live!) join Streep in the park's final production of the summer
season, and it is the synergy of this array of artists, this magical
play (in Tom Stoppard's clear, respectful version of the text) and
the stunning mise en scène of Central Park (as well as
the scarcity of tickets) that has produced a Seagull to be
remembered, perhaps for decades.

The Seagull tells
the story of a group of writers and actors gathered on the lakeside
estate of the famous actress Irina Arkadina (played by Streep), who
is summering there with her lover, the author Trigorin (Kline), and a
coterie of stock Chekhovian types (a doctor, a schoolteacher,
assorted country neighbors and so on). Arkadina's son, Konstantin
(Hoffman), an aspiring young playwright, has written a new play with
which he hopes to win the approval of his mother and her famous
lover. It is performed by Nina (Portman), a stage-struck young
actress and the object of Konstantin's desperate affections. The
story follows the deepening involvement of these characters over that
star-crossed summer wherein everyone falls in (unrequited) love; then
it jumps two years ahead, where things end badly. It's a play about
love and art and creativity and nature and death--and the alchemy of
all these elements. "I started it forte and ended it pianissimo,
contrary to all the rules of dramatic art," Chekhov wrote, as he
attempted to describe his experiment in writing a comedy that ends as
a tragedy.

It's also the first Chekhov play to be
performed in Shakespeare in the Park's forty-season history, and an
irresistible choice, given the natural setting. Still, it's a brave
one, for The Seagull, while sacred around the world in
artistic circles, theater conservatories and academia, remains the
Macbeth of the Chekhovian canon, the one that directors and
producers (especially American) tend to avoid, for fear of its
mystery and impenetrability. Indeed, if you look at the history of
Chekhov in America and the list of publicly acclaimed, "landmark"
productions in recent decades--most notably Lee Strasberg's Three
Sisters
(Actors Studio, 1964), Andrei Serban's Cherry
Orchard
(Lincoln Center, 1977), Peter Brook's (imported)
Cherry Orchard (Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1988) and the wave
of popular Uncle Vanyas in the 1990s both on stage and screen
(most notably Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street, based on
Andre Gregory's direction of the play)--The Seagull is not on
it.

But Nichols, whose strongest suits are comedy and
celebrity, has made a wise and timely choice in staging a play
about the theater that is calling such attention to the
theater. And of course the jewel in his crown is Streep, whose
sweeping entrance down the staircase of her estate onto the Delacorte
stage evokes an ecstatic ovation. Whether in mauve or white or
emerald or scarlet, Streep illuminates the night, as she plays the
flamboyant actress who struggles to preserve her passion for the
theater against the hostility of her suicidal son, the stultification
of the Russian countryside, the threat of aging and the danger of
losing her glamour and her lover (to the younger actress). It's a
complex, demanding, potentially unsympathetic role, and Streep
follows in the footsteps of many great actresses on the
English-speaking stage--including Dame Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft,
Vanessa Redgrave, Irene Worth, Susan Fleetwood, Penelope Wilton, Judi
Dench, Felicity Kendall, Rosemary Harris and Blythe Danner--who have
faced its daunting challenges with aplomb. Streep, comedian par
excellence, endows the role with a daredevil panache and and flair
for physicalizing comedy. (Those of us who remember her Dunyasha in
The Cherry Orchard twenty-four years ago at Lincoln Center,
when she fell into a flat-out faint, are astonished once again when
here, in Act II, she erupts into a full-petticoated cartwheel.)
Swanning around the garden, throwing tantrums over a horse and
carriage, nursing her son's wounds tenderly and then insulting him
cruelly, weeping over her finances or tousling with her lover on the
Oriental rug, she ranges across the spectrum of human emotions,
flaunting her character's flaws and capturing our sympathies in the
end. It is a charismatic and commanding performance.

Streep
is well matched by her fellow cast members: Marcia Gay Harden's
deliciously dark Masha (dragging around the stage "in mourning for
her life" over unrequited love for Konstantin); John Goodman's
jelly-bellied Shamraev (the estate's manager and would-be baritone),
with his booming "Bravo, Silva!"; Christopher Walken's sprightly
Sorin (a hilarious and heartbreaking portrayal of Arkadina's aging
brother)--all are finely etched, acrobatic performances, in the
spirit of Chekhov's vaudevillian intent.

There are also
the gentle, bittersweet portrayals of Stephen Spinella's sensitive
schoolteacher Medvedenko; Larry Pine's wise, knowing Dr. Dorn; and
Debra Monk's tender Paulina, whose pathetic hope to reclaim lost love
and youth, like her bouquet of flowers, is torn to shreds.

In the roles of the doomed young lovers and aspiring
artists, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Natalie Portman give unadorned,
affecting performances, courageous in their vulnerability. Hoffman,
known for his flamboyant character roles in film (including Almost
Famous
and The Talented Mr. Ripley) and his recent tour de
force on Broadway in Sam Shepard's True West, shows great
versatility here with his sensitive, understated portrayal of the
tortured young writer. And Portman's delicate youth and soaring
spirit make her fall all the more heartbreaking in the play's final,
immortal scene, played by both with simplicity and
restraint.

The illusive role of the writer Trigorin, the
lover who leaves Arkadina for Nina and then abandons Nina and their
child, is, like Arkadina, a dangerously unsympathetic one (it was
originated by Stanislavsky himself, and Chekhov never felt he got it
right). Kevin Kline, distinguished classical leading man (remember
his Hamlet and Ivanov), has given this subtle role an elegant,
seductive, ironic and highly appealing rendering.

While
The Seagull is considered a realistic play (radically
experimental, at the time it was written), it is in truth an
impressionistic one, and directors are understandably lured by its
suggestive symbolism. Hence, there have been numerous vivid imagistic
productions over the years, including, most recently, Romanian-born
Andrei Serban's Seagull in Japan (1980), with a vast lake on
stage, into which Treplev falls after he shoots himself; Petr Lebl's
white-on-white Art Deco one in Prague (1994); and Michael Greif's
production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (1994), where the
back wall of the stage rises at the end of Act IV, revealing
Konstantin's blood-drenched body draped over the piano. In the case
of Nichols's Seagull, the director has trust enough in the
author, the text, the splendid cast and the spectacular natural
setting to allow the play to play itself. Indeed, Central Park
provides everything that Chekhov asked for: a vast outdoor park, a
lake (Turtle Pond) and the silhouette of grand estates (Belvedere
Castle) on the other shore. Bob Crowley (scenic and costume designer)
has provided an elegant, vine-covered mansion stage left, whose
brilliant windows (lit by Jennifer Tipton) blaze against the dark
sky, promising a cozy, safe interior against the dangerous lures of
nature and creativity. Marcia Gay Harden and Stephen Spinella wander
in from behind the birches, Natalie Portman rides in on horseback,
Kevin Kline sits silently on the shore and fishes. "Ah, the spells
this lake casts," sighs Larry Pine. (Who needs Hollywood?!)

Above all, Mike Nichols has understood why Chekhov called
this play a comedy. Chekhov, the vaudevillian, the writer of sketches
and short stories, had the soul of a comedic writer in the body of a
dying man. Diagnosed at 29, he died of consumption at the age of 44
(he wrote The Seagull at 35). As a doctor, Chekhov saw life
ironically, in tragicomic terms--"I write about life as it is," he
said. Nichols (once a comedic actor himself), with four award-winning
decades in the theater (directing Simon, Albee, Beckett and Stoppard,
among many others), has his own deep understanding of how comedy and
drama cohabit on the stage. Accordingly, he has inspired comedic
performances that follow the story's descent into sorrow with
simplicity and truth.

"I would like life to flash by in
moments, brilliantly," Chekhov once wrote to his publisher. In the
end, the deep truths of his four great plays are unfathomable, and
productions over the past century have not always been greeted with
praise by the public and the critics. And yet, the glory and eternity
of Chekhov lies in fleeting but indelible moments created on the
stage. For me, there's the memory of Irene Worth running round the
empty house in the last act of Serban's Cherry Orchard, as she
leaves her home forever. Or of Brian Dennehy in Brook's production,
as he pounds his chest and shouts, "It's mine, the cherry orchard is
mine!" Or Ian McKellen's Uncle Vanya clutching his bouquet of roses
at the Royal National Theatre (1993). Or Vanessa and Corin Redgrave
(brother and sister playing the same) in the RNT's current production
of The Cherry Orchard, frolicking on the nursery floor. And
now, add the moment of Meryl Streep's joyful, triumphant cartwheel
under the stars in Central Park, in celebration of life and art and
talent--and return to the theater.

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