CHICAGO—When “The Seagull” opened in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1896, those in the audience hissed and booed at it. Maybe the premiere failed so badly because the audience didn’t realize that Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), the playwright, meant for the play to be a comedy.
Theatergoers’ appreciation for the work changed, though, when director Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863–1938) produced it in 1898 in Moscow, highlighting the dark, comedic aspects of it as Chekhov intended. It then became an instant hit and has since become a classic.
Before trying his hand at playwriting, Chekhov was a doctor and, as such, more concerned with observable reality than dramatic convention, which may be why his plays present life as it is rather than life as it should be. He was writing natural realism against the backdrop of the dramatic, well-made plays of the 19th century.
Even today, “The Seagull” is more understandable and enjoyable when one realizes that Chekhov, who was the son of a lowly serf in Russia, was making fun of the pretensions and affectations of the Russian upper class. He found human nature funny and sad at the same time. One can see a similarity between Chekhov’s portrayal of the Russian elites and their search for meaning in all the wrong places to that of some in our own time.
In the revival of “The Seagull” in Steppenwolf Theatre’s new 400-seat theater-in-the round Ensemble Theater, the comic nature of people who complain about their lives but do little about it is at the center of the production.
Indeed, the play, whose moniker for this presentation has been changed to “Seagull,” offers characters who are fighting the same demons that many grapple with in our age, demonstrating how painful and self-defeating the human condition can be when untethered to God and a heavenly moral compass.
A Modern Take
The story of “Seagull” focuses on a dysfunctional family in pain, in love, in disagreement, in anxiety, in laughter, in anger, and depressed and fearful. You know, like a somewhat typical family. It revolves around Irina Nikolaevna Arkadina, once a star of the theater. Her son, Konstantin, writes plays no one understands; he is in love with Nina, a wannabe actress, who is in love with Trigorin, a tortured author because he can’t get stories out of his head.
The plot thickens as playwright Konstantin demonstrates his devotion to Nina by gifting her with a gull he has killed. When Nina falls in love with writer Trigorin, Konstantin does something drastic to try to hold on to her, but she runs off with Trigorin anyway.
Even though it turns out that Trigorin isn’t a very nice guy and their relationship is doomed, Nina is still in love with him. When she confesses that to Konstantin, he goes crazy and does something very foolish and destructive.
This is not an easy play to mount, which is why it was a challenge for Yasen Peyankov, the Bulgarian-born director to tackle it. While Peyankov translated, adapted, and directed “Seagull” so that it’s more in keeping with contemporary times, it loses some of its original flavor in the modernization.
There’s nothing in Todd Rosenthal’s set design to suggest that the play takes place in Russia, or in Marcus Doshi’s lighting design that invokes the feeling of a countryside. And Ana Kuzmanic’s costume design seems limited to what the cast could find in their own wardrobe. In trying to put a new take on Chekhov, Peyankov has ended up with a blander, less colorful production than the original.
Compelling Steppenwolf Players
That said, the cast of the show, among the most talented of Steppenwolf players, provide compelling performances. Namir Smallwood delivers an intense portrayal as Konstantin, capturing the character’s feelings of insecurity and his anger at being rejected by the woman he loves.
Caroline Neff stands out as the aspiring actress Nina, who goes from a naive, idolizing teen to an adult coming to grips with a dark reality. Joey Slotnick, who has been seen on many Chicago stages as a terrific comedic actor, now proves that he can play a more serious role as Trigorin. And Lusia Strus, as Irina, Konstantin’s self-absorbed, flamboyant mother, is a hoot, who in moments, almost steals the show.
Others who contributed strong performances include Keith Kupferer who gets the most laughs as Ilya, the manager of the estate; Sandra Marquez as Polina, Ilya’s wife who has a strange obsession with the weather; Jeff Perry (one of the founders of Steppenwolf) as Irina’s sickly brother; Eric Simonson as doctor Yevgeny Dorn who prides himself on his ability to refrain from taking advantage of the women who adore him; and Karen Rodriguez as Masha, who always wears black because she is in mourning for the life she wants but believes she will never have.
Steppenwolf Ensemble Theatre
1635 N. Halsted Street, Chicago
Information: 312-335-1850 or Steppenwolf.org
Runs: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Closes: June 12, 2022