In 1898, when the Moscow Art Theatre had spent several months rehearsing The Seagull, they invited its author to a run-through. Afterward, he sat in his seat, weeping.
“Oh, Anton,” exclaimed director Konstantin Stanislavski, rushing up to him. “You, too, are crying! It’s such a beautiful tragedy!”
“No, no, Kolya,” the playwright replied. “I’m crying because you’ve ruined my play. I wrote a comedy!”
The story may be apocryphal (or it may not), but the problem is real. Chekhov’s plays are masterpieces, certainly. But they can be bloody difficult to interpret.
Currently, the Downtown Rep is taking a shot at The Seagull.
Their home theatre offers a splendid setting — the three-story deep atrium of the Pico House hotel, built when Chekhov was just a boy. Its brick walls and ornate ironwork take us at once into the world of country aristocrats, far from the center of empire, who must use rough local materials to fashion their own grandeur.
Pico House also poses a challenge. The space is cavernous, and acoustics can be tricky. Setting the play at one end of the oblong courtyard, and the audience across the middle, does not fully succeed in making the proceedings audible.
The space — and the three-tiered building around it — also tempts director Michael Bernardi to add action. Actors frequently fly up and down stairways, and along balconies, while saying their lines.
To their great credit, hardly a line is lost to these aerobic stunts.
This works visually, using the full canvas to paint the story and make it more exciting. But when energetic movement takes over, dominating the play, it doesn’t work so well. The Seagull is a gentle satire, perhaps, but it is not a farce.
Chekhov’s plays do involve lots of seemingly superfluous chat and moving about, in his parody of cocktail-party life. But they arrive at points — sometimes long periods — of tremendous stillness. In these quiet interludes, his people struggle to find and say something real, illuminating and often altering their lives.
Bernardi’s Seagull flies easily and often — his staging of Treplev’s allegorical playlet-within-a-play is the best I’ve ever seen — but it doesn’t perch often enough, or rest long enough. And when it does, alas, we have some problems with delivery.
Stage veterans Gillian Doyle (the actress Arkadina) and Michael Clair Miller (her brother Sorin) send clear spoken messages every time, under all conditions. So, almost always, do Devon Armstrong (Treplev, Arkadina’s son), Shaelynn Parker (Polina) and Dylan Rourke (the teacher Medvedienko) and Simon T. Jones (Dorn, the doctor).
So we know the cavernous atrium isn’t to blame.
LA newcomer Kelsey Siepser (Masha, Polina’s daughter) creates a riveting character, usually with strong vocal clarity; but at times (usually emotional ones), her speaking drowns in a torrent of syllables. Ditto for Cooper Steve Anderson (as estate manager Shamrayev) and, sadly, for Jordan Jude (as heiress-turned-actress Nina, the play’s tragic center) — their well-carved characters suddenly disappear, as if stepping behind a screen, when they rush their lines. And we get thrown out of the story.
We’re also alienated, at unexpected moments, when characters start to “emote” — that is, to express their feelings to the universe, with little or no reference to the other people onstage. This can work in soliloquies or brief asides, but it’s a technique Chekhov seldom used. His people are always trying to get one another’s attention and make them feel or do something — even Sorin, in his languid, seemingly disconnected utterances.
Bernardi confesses, in the program notes, to being a first-time director. He earns points for courage — like a martial-arts student arm-wrestling the master — and for invention. His use of the space is daring and effective, his play-within-a-play likewise.
And his idea to set the play in a fictional present (where the Soviet Union never happened), with Arkadina as a TV star dogged by a crew shooting a mockumentary, could work, too. It just needs to be fleshed out, given more presence and backstory.
Decorations, however, need a cake. Bernardi needs to invest his energy first in getting his cast grounded and focused. Their well-made characters need to be capable of falling into stillness and staying there, with energy. They need to be always desperately trying to affect one another. And we, the audience, need them to be always communicating with us.
This is what it takes to land a Seagull. Or, really, almost any play.
Downtown Rep may not have quite coaxed the bird to settle on the iron railings of their Pico House atrium, but they’ve come close enough to be well worth watching.
Note: Every actor could gain by watching the work of Jason Greene (the servant Yakov). As the transgender media artist Freckle, s/he is known for flamboyance. But here, we see an actor wholly focused on being present, in the character and moment, helping to weave the story with almost no lines. (And in those few lines — most of them shrewdly added by Bernardi before the curtain — Greene reveals the finest vocal instrument in the house, and plays it masterfully.)
The Seagull, by Anton Chekhov, directed by Michael Bernardi.
Presented by the Downtown Repertory Theater at Pico House, 430 N. Main Street, LA.
Thursday through Sunday at 7:30 pm, through Aug. 31.