“Seagull” still strikes a nerve in Shotgun's modern-day adaptation

I'm not sure why anyone assumes that we need modern rewrites of powerful plays. A few months back, I saw Luis Alfaro's much-praised adaptation of Oedipus Rex at Magic Theatre, which reimagined everyone's favorite incestuous monarch as an ex-con. That might've been just fine, except that Alfaro mucked around so much with the original structure that the play's climax no longer made much dramatic sense. If you'd walked into the theater knowing nothing about Sophocles, you would have left in utter confusion. The urge to modernize only succeeded in mystifying the original, gratifying the audience's supposed need for contemporary relevance while making the Greeks seem even more distant and unknowable than before. If a writer is so eager to contemporize, then why not do the ultimate contemporary thing and write a play from scratch?

So I approached A Seagull in the Hamptons with a fair amount of skepticism. Emily Mann's play, which opens an exciting new season at Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage in Berkeley, gives the contemporary treatment to Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. I'm still not convinced that Chekhov needed to get a complete makeover on this side of the Atlantic, but at least Mann makes the exercise worthwhile.

The Seagull is, miraculously, not yet a museum piece. (A few years back, I saw a gothic-themed production up in Seattle, and the play managed just fine.) It nearly caused a riot when it debuted in 1896, and retains its power to provoke. Now, as ever, audiences tend to ask the same questions: How dare Chekhov call something a “comedy” when it's really just two hours of rambling speeches by narcissists and neurotics? Where's the plot? And what kind of show tries to kill off a major character during intermission? Even after a century of similar efforts by talents as diverse as Tennessee Williams, Jean Renoir, and Woody Allen, it's still tough to watch or read The Seagull without feeling unbalanced by the play's unorthodox approach or wounded by its stabs of insight.

Mann makes a smart move by changing very little of the play's underlying story; she emphasizes some subplots over others, but the general arc remains the same. Chekhov's Irina Arkadina — one of the great stage roles, period — is now an aging New York actress named Maria (Trish Mulholland) who is madly jealous of Meryl Streep. Her son, Alex (Liam Callister), is a playwright rebelling against the pieties and conventions of commercial theater. He's in love with Nina (Kelsey Venter), an aspiring actress, who in turn pines for Philip (Alex Moggridge), a disillusioned novelist and Maria's much younger lover. On and on it goes, with every character aching for one thing or another, even though few of them have any real reason to be dissatisfied. Chekhov is one of the founding figures of modern theater in part because he taps into, and exploits, one of the central problems of contemporary life — that our deepest feelings often make the least sense.

This production's success can be appreciated from two perspectives. Chekhov fans will applaud the smart, subtle choices Mann makes in the script; her changes emerge naturally from the new setting, so the adaptation rarely calls attention to itself. Newbies, meanwhile, will be able to enjoy the show without knowing a thing about the original version — the adaptation operates perfectly well according to its internal logic. (My boyfriend had neither read nor seen The Seagull, and he enjoyed the production even more than I did.)

Mann manages to update the dialogue without letting things get too knowing or cute. When, for instance, Alex brings Nina a dead seagull as an overwrought love offering, she replies, “You talk in these symbols. And this seagull? Really?” That doesn't sound like Chekhov at all, but it's in the Chekhovian spirit. And just as importantly, it sounds like something a teenage Long Islander would actually say.

Director Reid Davis does a lot of things right in this production, but is especially good at creating and sustaining a sense of ensemble. Not only do most of the actors bring unusual depth and richness to their characters, but they also interact as though they've lived in the same house for a good long time. Mulholland turns in a memorable comic performance, interpreting Chekhov's diva as a boorish, downmarket version of '70s-era Elizabeth Taylor. And Moggridge does very fine work in the play's single best scene — the seduction of Nina — in which he manages to achieve a tough equilibrium among wistfulness, bitterness, and predation.

I don't like to single out actors who fail to deliver, but that's tough to avoid when just one performance nearly throws off an entire show. The role of Alex (Konstantine in Chekhov's version) is crucial to the play's success, since the final scene — frankly, the entire fourth act — hinges on his ability to draw the audience into his struggle with suicide. In this particular production, Callister is simply in over his head. Even in a loose adaptation of Chekhov, you need actors who can alternate between humor and heartbreak in a single sentence, and he never registers anything beyond a kind of youthful earnestness. With a more seasoned actor in that key role, this Seagull might even make you forget, at least for two hours, that Anton Chekhov never got anywhere near Long Island.

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