Chekhov Takes Wing

Chekhov Takes Wing


“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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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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