Flipped Bird: The Seagull

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Theater Review JK Clarke

 

In just three seasons, Bedlam Theatre Company has made quite an impression. Last year’s critically acclaimed and award nominated productions of Saint Joan and Hamlet seemed hard acts to follow. But this year the small, austere company has possibly exceeded the brilliance and depth of those two, creating a nuanced and modern version of Chekhov’s The Seagull, as adapted by Anya Reiss. Bedlam’s strength appears to lie in a deep and earnest exploration of the text with staging kept to a relative minimum. Last year’s productions offered almost virtually no sets and little in the way of costuming. The Seagull, however, has a pleasant, rustic country set (John McDermott) and again employs Bedlam’s clever ruse of requiring that the audience leave the theater and come back to an entirely different seating arrangement following intermission. The alteration serves not only to refresh the audience but also provides a re-boot on perspective and interaction with the players and the play itself. It’s a sort of passive, subtle form of immersive theater that achieves its goal without cudgelling attendees into participating in something they’d rather merely observe. In this instance they are moved from traditional, raked theater seats to chairs literally on the stage, surrounding the action. Like it or not, the audience becomes a complicit part of the action. And that becomes significant in the play’s penultimate moment.

The Seagull is the story of a group of family and friends spending the summer on an island away from the big city at the home of Sorin (Stephan Wolfert). His sister is famous actress and bon vivant, Irina Arkadina (graceful and elegant Vaishnavi Sharma) who’s there with her famous boytoy writer Boris Trigorin (played as an absent minded savant by Jason O’Connell). Arkadina likely never should have had children, considering her lifestyle and never having really grown up herself, but she has a son, Konstantin (Eric Tucker, who also directs), an aspiring, yet woefully immature playwright who lives in her shadow. He attempts to mount pompous and arrogant avant-garde theater as a means of stepping outside traditional boundaries . . . only to suffer humiliation at the hands of his mother and her cronies. Meanwhile, overlapping love triangles overtake common sense, with Konstantin’s theater partner and beloved, Nina, falling for his mother’s paramour Boris.

Setting this Seagull apart from others is Reiss’s smart, modern adaptation which makes for a contemporary story that we can relate to in a far more visceral manner than if it remained set in late 19th century Russia. Tucker’s brilliant Konstantin is an Everyman, a suffering Hamlet (even so labeled by his own mother) we experience so deeply that we’re sure we know him already: he’s a friend or a friend of a friend. Another major contemporary reference is the characters’ collective desire for fame. They are all driven by the need to be recognized: as actors (Nina, Arkadina), or writers (Boris, Konstantin). Not much different than today—just swap out “writer” for “singer.” Consequently, they end up mired in delusion: Boris believes that doe-eyed sycophant Nina (believably emotionally fragile Laura Baranik) truly loves and understands him; Konstantin believes Nina will fall for him once he’s proven himself a success; and Arkadina believes Boris will finally understand that she is the right woman for him once he has gotten his dalliances out of his system. It’s only Andrus Nichols’ whiskey-swilling Masha who understands the futility of it all. Despite her pure love for Konstantin, she realizes she will never have him, so she settles and drinks. Ironically, it is Masha who has the most sober understanding of the goings-on and the people around her. Once again, Nichols’ deeply expressive visage conveys a thousand more thoughts than the words she is actually speaking. Despite her lesser role, it is Nichols who we find ourselves reflecting on most deeply when all is said and done.

Taking a classic piece of theater into the present is most effective when the time change becomes irrelevant. Bedlam reaches into the text and tells us why it still matters to us, transcending time and place. When it’s done this well, it’s what makes theater exciting. Once again this outstanding company leaves us eager to see what comes next.

The Seagull. Through December 21 at the Sheen Center (18 Bleecker Street, between Third Avenue and Layfayette). www.theatrebedlam.org

*Photo: Elizabeth Nichols

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