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Crosstown Chekhovs

The master of understatement as interpreted by Robert Falls and Sarah Ruhl



The Seagull Goodman Theatre Three Sisters Piven Theatre Workshop

"I think that in his presence," Maxim Gorky said of Anton Chekhov, "everyone involuntarily felt in himself a desire to be simpler." Chekhov seems to have had the same effect on Robert Falls, a director whose work before now has been about as understated as a class five hurricane. Typified by actor-dwarfing sets, graphic sex and violence, and an overall atmosphere of destruction, depravity and decay, Falls's stagings of King Lear (2007), Desire Under the Elms (2009), and A True History of the Johnstown Flood (2010) were clearly designed to overwhelm. Based on that track record, you might expect Chekhov's seminal 1896 drama, The Seagull, to come in for similar treatment—with, say, the play's country estate rigged to levitate, the characters reimagined as vicious, frequently naked libertines, and the titular bird multiplied into a murderous Hitchcockian flock.

That would be a disaster and, fortunately, Falls knows it. A more-is-more approach might serve the tragedies of Shakespeare and O'Neill, but Chekhov worked on a smaller scale. Accordingly, Todd Rosenthal's set consists of a simple, gently raked wooden dock (with the audience seated on three sides) and a couple benches where cast members sit when they're not in a scene. Costumes are contemporary and unostentatious. And the actors, though playing people prone to outbursts of passion, stay within the normal range of human expression. As Stanislavsky knew and this beautifully acted Goodman Theatre production demonstrates, when performed without histrionics, nobody's plays are more moving than Chekhov's.

The Seagull deals with longings related to art and unrequited love. Famous, aging actress Arkadina sweeps in for a summer visit to brother Sorin's farm, her much younger lover, Trigorin—a successful but mediocre writer—in tow. Konstantin, her miserable twentysomething son, is already there; a would-be experimental playwright, Konstantin is desperate for Arkadina's attention and obsessively in love with aspiring actress Nina, who falls instantly for Trigorin. Also in residence are a pompous estate manager, his miserable wife, and their gloomy, vodka-swilling, snuff-snorting daughter, Masha, who's in love with Konstantin. Dorn, a doctor and erstwhile roué, views the others with amused detachment. Hearts get broken, hopes get dashed, happiness comes only in dribs and drabs, and living comes to seem an exercise in managing disappointment—which, of course, it is.

These machinations are sad and ludicrous at the same time—which is exactly what makes them affecting and true. Falls's cast expertly captures the paradox, as when Francis Guinan's sweet, doddering Sorin lists his failures and nobody listens but Scott Jaeck's Dorn, who laughs. Or when Cliff Chamberlain's Trigorin asks Mary Beth Fisher's Arkadina to let him pursue Nina and Fisher responds with a display of desperation that turns groveling into a form of aggression. The constant sense of cross-purposes is nowhere more poignant than in the vulnerable, openhearted performances of Stephen Louis Grush and Heather Wood as Konstantin and Nina, who as the characters with the most illusions at the beginning suffer more than anyone else by the end. Of the two, only one develops the strength to go on.

Falls falls short only in failing to register class distinctions. Kelly O'Sullivan's Masha, for instance, is awfully sassy with her social betters. Sarah Ruhl's vibrant new adaptation of Chekhov's Three Sisters (based on a translation by Elise Thoron) does a far better job of distinguishing the haves from the have-nots, giving the former finer turns of phrase and letting the latter cuss and say things like "the height of bad tasteness."

Written in 1900, this Chekhov play centers on the Prozorov girls—Olga, Maria, and Irina—who, along with their adored brother, Andrei, were born in Moscow but moved by their parents to a rural military outpost while they were still young. Well educated and trained in etiquette, the siblings feel stifled and slowly but surely coarsened by the hicks in their midst, including Andrei's tacky, grasping wife. They long to go back to Moscow.

Ruhl occasionally uses some clunky metaphors ("The whole town is disappearing like a tray of food being covered with one of those metal lids"), but for the most part finds a tone at once achingly lyrical and startlingly contemporary—as in the climactic scene when Irina realizes she's never going to make it to the big city. "Life leaves us and it doesn't come back," she says, "moving and moving toward some black pit."

Sounds like bleak stuff. But director Joyce Piven doesn't fill this Piven Theatre Workshop staging with solemn people gazing into the middle distance. Her production has an active energy, and when characters arrive at a devastating truth they tell it simply and without sentiment and move on. This nicely captures the fact that in Chekhov as in reality, life continues after dreams die. People don't make the trip to Moscow or get the girl or become great artists, but more often than not, they go on.   v

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