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Existential Duck-Duck-Goose

Michael Halberstam's mercilessly charming take on Chekhov's house party

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Seagull

Writers' Theatre

By the end of this exquisite Writers' Theatre production of Anton Chekhov's Seagull all I could think was how much I wanted to watch it again--only backward this time, from finish to start. I longed--really, longed--to see its bitter climax give way to the sweet beginning I'd enjoyed so much, even though I knew the sweetness was false: a little sugar to palliate the hard facts of exploitation, anger, and narcissism, of bad bets made, bad breaks got, bad fates set in motion, and all kinds of loaded guns just waiting to go off.

At least at the beginning it's possible to pretend. When Masha, the estate manager's daughter, claims to be in mourning for her life in the first lines, we can still laugh it off. She's so adolescent--so goth, in fact--in her black clothes and condescension. Likewise stagestruck Nina as she puppies after celebrities. And Konstantin, the avant-gardist with baby-pink cheeks, as he makes his grand pronouncements regarding love and art. Even when Konstantin attempts suicide there's a childish extravagance to the act; nobody dies and nobody takes the gesture very seriously.

It isn't until the play's final act, which takes place two years later, that the seagull comes home to roost, as it were--and we become painfully conscious of where all this flailing and foolishness is headed. How it has to end up. Which is to say, bitterly.

Like Chekhov's other tragic comedies, Seagull hasn't a plot so much as a premise: a family gathering at the Treplev country estate. Old Sorin occupies the place year-round along with his nephew, the excitable would-be playwright Konstantin, whose mother, Arkadina, is a famous actress. Deeply, viciously, comically (and, in the person of Susan Hart, wonderfully) self-involved, Arkadina is summering there with her lover, the handsome, accomplished writer Trigorin. A kind of existential game of duck-duck-goose ensues. Masha hopes Konstantin will save her from her oafish beau and pursues him, but Konstantin adores Nina, who's smitten with Trigorin, who claims to love fishing. The rapidly aging Arkadina's only real suitor is her son, who makes continual blood-from-a-stone efforts to arouse her maternal feeling. Meanwhile Masha's mother, Paulina, has her own blood-from-a-stone project in the works: an attempt to rouse the local doctor, Dorn.

For all the yearning there's precious little satisfaction. The women can be foolish, but the men are much worse: ineffectual, infantile, dense, sloppy, casually devious, either languid or pointlessly headstrong in their affairs. And so we regard them and their activities as silly. A midsummer night's sex comedy without the sex. But that's far from the end of it. Marx said that history plays out first as tragedy and then as farce. Well, here it's precisely the reverse. When we see the characters again after intermission, their antics have assumed a retrospective gravity. Masha's mourning is real. And the most painful part is that you know you saw it coming.

The deftness with which this bait and switch is carried out owes a lot to Curt Columbus's clean, clear, unfussy translation--but more to Michael Halberstam's direction. His first half is mercilessly charming, at times almost sitcom brisk, though there's no scorn here, no stagy winking, and consequently no sense of disengagement when things get ugly. I felt about the younger characters in particular as I might about a friend's grown children who'd gotten into trouble: a queasy gut sadness, not only at their situation but at the knowledge that they've had their unavoidable meeting with the world.

In this production, as in Chekhov generally, the best effects are achieved through indirection. What's left uncommunicated. Coby Goss, for example, never telegraphs Trigorin's essential weaselliness; for most of the play the guy's as attractive to us as he is to Nina and Arkadina. We find out who he really is cumulatively, more through the resonance of his actions (and, at a certain point, Rachel Anne Healy's clever costuming) than through any signals he himself provides.

Karen Janes Woditsch's Masha exists in a constant state of turmoil that simply darkens as the play goes on, her comic petulance turning to deep alcoholic grievance. Janet Ulrich Brooks's Paulina embodies a line from Whitman--"What living and buried speech is always vibrating here, what howls restrain'd by decorum"--while the object of her affections, James Leaming's Dorn, wanders through the play looking like a man who isn't sure he boarded the right train. As Nina, Karen Aldridge expresses a turmoil the other characters can only envy: modesty vies with palpable ecstasy in her encounters with Trigorin.

But it's Christopher McLinden's Konstantin who stands at the vortex. Incredibly well cast with his rosy complexion, mop of hair, gangly limbs, and obvious intelligence, McLinden comes across as the quintessential product of alternative schooling. His Konstantin is a jumpy, superficially arrogant, intensely needy kid for whom the gap between intention and performance grows intolerably wide. McLinden makes Konstantin's desire and despair heartbreakingly clear. A passage during which he positively purrs while Arkadina uncharacteristically babies him provides more than an insight into his relationship with his mother; it's his entire psychic biography from start to inevitable finish.

When: Through 12/5: Tue-Fri 8 PM, Sat 5 and 8 PM, Sun 2:30 and 6 PM

Where: Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe

Price: $45-$50

Info: 847-242-6000

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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