Saturday, February 13, 2016

Breathing life into The Seagull

by Jenni Morin

The passion, fame, insecurities and life’s purpose detailed in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull are as applicable to today’s obsession with obsession as they were when it first premiered in 1896. The Classic Theatre of San Antonio makes this Chekhovian comedy not only palatable, but also enjoyable and relevant. The immensely talented cast of The Seagull can be seen at The Classic through March 6.

Kelly Hilliard Roush and Michael
Holley in The Classic production
of The Seagull. Photo: Siggi Ragnar.
The Seagull takes place on the country lake estate of Peter Sorin, whose sister is famous actress Irina Arkadina and has taken famous writer Boris Trigorin for her lover. Irina’s son Constantine has written a symbolic play and cast his love interest Nina Mikhailovna of a neighboring estate as the lead. In an attempt to prove his worth and gain respect from his mother, Konstantin invites everyone, to view the play. After being mocked by his mother and Nina rejecting his love, Konstantin becomes depressed obsessed with dismantling the artistic conventions held dear by his mother and Trigorin who has seduced Nina. While Masha Shamrayev, the daughter of the stubborn estate manager Ilya, is courted by Simon Medvedenko the teacher, she pines for Constantine. Her mother Paulina asks to be whisked away by Dr. Yevgeny Dorn who is a family friend and physician to the elderly and ailing Peter. The humor lies mostly in subtext and the unpredictable emotional poles of every interaction, which is heightened by each character’s own self-importance. As the unrequited love in the various triangles is destroyed, they each must reinvent themselves or accept the lives their passion has dealt them.

Exuberant narcissism fuels The Seagull’s energy as The Classic cast portrays complex and intriguing characters reminiscent of today’s self-indulgent artistic elite. Director Allan S. Ross exhibits them as fascinating subjects who are as endearing as they are detestable. The set by Ric Slocum feeds into this voyeurism with floating gilded frames and a haunting yet enchanting backdrop of birch trees. A constant reminder for the country’s nature and openness, Rick Malone’s sound design juxtaposes the restlessness and dissatisfaction they each feel in their lives. The lighting by Pedro Ramirez readily sets the mood and highlights key symbolism throughout, including Richard Solis' title prop. However, Diane Malone’s costumes bridge the technical elements to the actors with breathtaking ensembles from head to toe, all period appropriate.

Leading the cast with an unparalleled mastery of manipulation was Kelly Hilliard Roush’s Irina Arkadina, possessing an alluring stage presence reserved for those with exquisite talent. Jonathan Pollei’s portrayal of Boris Trigorin perfectly complemented Roush as he bore the cross of fame and talent with poise and intrigue. Chelsea Dyan Steele as Masha, John D. Boyd as Simon and Catherine Babbitt as Paulina were all masters of subtext as they exchanged glances. Joe De Mott as Ilya, along with Michael Duggan as Peter Sorin, provided great comedic relief with perfectly timed interludes. Michael Holley played Constantine as a mix of Hamlet and Romeo and Julya Jara handled Nina’s arc with graceful melodramatics, both perfectly appropriate for Chekhov. Through it all, Andrew Thornton provided a constant and refreshing wisdom in Dr. Yevgeny Dorn, bridling the emotions of the others.

Perhaps The Seagull is Chekhov exposing the addictive nature of writing and performance, which begs the question if Trigorin’s compulsion to write mirrors that of his author. It’s entirely possible the script reflects the playwright’s own feelings about fame, acceptance, frustration with artistic conventions, and even life wasted. Whether it’s pitiful or eerie, The Seagull seems applicable even more today with the proliferating obsession with selfies and celebrities. Nina’s fate can certainly speak to the detrimental effect of fame on those incapable of obtaining or navigating it—just as the seagull circling the water it loves can never see the bullet coming to knock it out of its lofty position in the sky. Beyond the symbolism of the lake and the seagull, the play’s subject matter is timeless as it explores human nature’s inevitable need for validation, a search for self-preservation, and how to live a life worth living, whatever that may entail for each individual. Each character seems to embody a fear they are powerless to overcome.

A true ensemble, the entire cast of The Seagull at The Classic effortlessly mounted this passionately verbose and technically appealing production. The Classic makes Chekhov approachable, relatable and entertaining, a veritable feat over Russian literature for American audiences.

The Seagull will run at The Classic Theatre through March 6, 2016 with performances at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

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