Sunday, January 18, 2009

A.R.T. Contemplates Art in "The Seagull"

Anton Chekhov's 1896 play The Seagull is a fascinating specimen in the unification of form and content examining the nature of art. Writing for the Moscow Art Theatre, Chekhov was attempting to (and, as time has proven, succeeding at) creating a new form of drama to service a new world. "What will be here 200,000 years from now?" Constantine asks us at the beginning of the play. It is an apocalyptic beginning to an anachronistic staging of a self-referential play that brings a contemporary sensibility to the contemplation of the state of art and the purpose of classics within our canon.

One would expect nothing less from the American Repertory Theatre which has earned a reputation for exploring the form of theatre while dedicating itself to the staging of classics, premieres, and cutting-edge work. Director Janos Szasz has eschewed traditional staging in every aspect of his production bringing forth the theatricality of the text and highlighting Konstantin's plight to create art that is new. The set consists of a bare stage - rear walls and fly rail exposed - movable theatre seats on stage, puddles of water, and a giant, cracked medieval painting that serves as firmament to the otherwise bleak environment. This Brechtian atmosphere serves the play well as we are invited suspend our disbelief to a Russian outdoor theatre, a summer home, a retreat to the city. Expository settings are eschewed for psychological embodiments of the essentialization of place. Take for example, the piles of luggage that serve as scenery for the beginning of Act II.

The concept for the show is a look into Constantine's brain in the moments leading up to his suicide. (Oops, I gave away the ending.) Therefore, the entire play becomes an exercise in concept as theatrically staged as Constantine's outdoor pageants. In this contemporary world, however, the outdoor plays are more aligned with Mimi's performance art monologue in Rent than theatrics dreamed up by any 19th century Russian aesthete. The contemporary costumes contribute to this allusion - elegant for the elders and heroine-chic for the younger generation - as does the entre act air guitar performance of "Sweet Child of Mine." This is concept directing at its most daring, most dangerous, and, in my opinion, most effective.
In most "concept shows," the actors are treated as merely puppets - disembodied, soulless automatons through which pretty pictures are created and text, voice, body, and movement can be deconstructed. However, Director Szasz uses acting technique as an integral element to his deconstruction of Chekhov's work. Centering the work in Konstatin's mind means developing each of the characters through this same perspective, which, in Janos Szasz' interpretation means adopting heightened melodrama and affected acting technique in order to dramatize the drama within his life. There was a discernible, but interesting dichotomy among the actors that made this choice work and not. The ART company members (Karen MacDonald, Remo Airaldi, Thomas Derrah, Brian Dykstra), who are superb actors in traditional, highly theatrical work , play their accustomed notes in a work that calls for a whole new tonal scale. Contrarily, the younger actors seemed to embrace the melodramatic style without the internalization and honesty of their veteran cohorts. The only performance which I felt melded the realism with stylization was Molly Ward as Nina, Konstantin's love interest. From her first entrance in a blushingly short skirt as an aspiring actress to her ultimate monologue as the strung-out, "ruined woman" her performance was riveting, daring, and evoked passion through stylization - which is the ultimate goal of theatrical conceptualization.
For me, the ultimate question of any conceptually directed show is: At the end, how do I feel about the story? In Janos Szasz's direction of The Seagull, I felt the story was far more accessible than any time I have seen it before. In a clever device, Konstantin uses a flashlight in the opening scenes to direct our attention to where he wants it. Just like these flashlights, Szasz's staging focuses our attention to the elements of the story that really matter while bringing in a contemporary sensibility. And I can think of no greater gift to leave for 200,000 years from now.

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