Los Angeles Theater Review: THE SEAGULL (Antaeus Theatre Company in North Hollywood)

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by Tony Frankel on March 7, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles

A GROUNDED SEAGULL

In Chekhov’s The Seagull, the young, angst-ridden writer Tréplev maintains that “What we need are new forms! We need new forms, and if we can’t have them, then we’re better off with no theater at all.” Yet when Chekhov wrote this line in 1895, he was referring not to the interpretation of a script, but literature itself. Indeed, in a letter to his publisher, Alexei Suvorin, he stated: “We must strive with all our power to see to it that the stage passes out of the hands of the grocers and into literary hands, otherwise the theater is doomed.”

The Seagull Photo 2

The doomed theater to which the revolutionary playwright referred was the “hidebound and conventional” Russian melodrama, where “in a thousand variations, I am served the same thing over and over again—then I flee.” Driven by his vision of new art, Chekhov took enormous risks by experimenting with innovative techniques, namely by removing convoluted plot structures and by focusing on the depiction of realistic characters who go about their daily routines even as they cheat, lie, fall in love and, in the case of The Seagull, commit suicide.

Thus, Chekhov spawned a movement that was picked up by the likes of O’Neill and O’Casey and ratified by Pinter, Mamet, Williams, Kushner, et al. Literature in the theater. Check.

The tricky part for modern theater, especially since it is experiencing a wave of new works that hardly constitute literature, is finding ground-breaking ways to stage these revolutionary playwrights. As evidenced by Antaeus’ current production of The Seagull (Chekhov’s most-produced work), to simply present his masterpiece, even with a litany of bravura thespians on hand, is not enough to satisfy. While Paul Schmidt’s translation is funnier and less stodgy than previous adaptations, director Andrew J. Traister’s leadership is so bereft of vision and risk-taking that the entire evening just sits there like the titular bird recently stuffed by a taxidermist.

The Seagull Photo 5In fact, Traister employed a paint-by-numbers approach that made me wonder if he was even on hand for rehearsals. A few actors escape the director’s humdrum interpretation by way of bold choices appropriate to their character, but the rest appear to be floundering for subtext. Joanna Strapp delivers most of the evening’s humor in a delicious portrayal of the alcohol- and snuff-addicted Masha. Likewise, Laura Wernette knows how to chew some scenery while eschewing false emotions as the manipulative, vainglorious grande dame actress Arkádina. But because of the vacuous context of the proceedings, the great actors of this estimable company (namely Bo Foxworth, Armin Shimerman, Abby Wilde, Michael McShane and Bill Brochtrup) all do fine work, even as they mostly lack specificity of character. When Antonio Jaramillo first appeared on the scene as Tréplev, I was excited at his choice to seemingly mock his mother’s acting career with atrocious line readings – until it became clear that the actor’s choice to scream and deliver presentational torment was no choice at all: He is both horribly miscast (in age and temperament) and lacking in classical technique.

The Seagull Photo 3While the stellar, disciplined, well-trained company of actors manages to save face in the curious case of the missing director, it is the technical aspects which best elucidate Traister’s vacant leadership. From the Russian peasant outfits to Gibson Girl hairstyles and frilly Edwardian-era dresses, costume designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg (assisted by Jessica Olson) can do no wrong, but the set by Evan Bartoletti and Lisa Luchega almost looks as though it was thrown together at the last minute. There are some lovely impressionistic water-color scrims in Act I which possibly represent the dappled colors of country flora, but these remain intact for interior scenes. Behind the backstage scrim in Act II are two gorgeously dressed rooms filled with Heather Ho’s smart props, but never once does an actor make an appearance in these rooms. Why are they there? Even Jeremy Pivnick, lighting designer extraordinaire, was relegated to flooding and dimming with little to no sense of time or space. I tell you I simply have no idea what the director was going for.

In The Seagull, Tréplev attempts to alter theater by staging a plotless avant-garde play. His goal is to portray humanity, which to him amounts to nothing, but the nothingness he chooses to present on his outdoors, makeshift stage has his fin de siècle audience baffled. However, the baffling and inexplicable nothingness seen all evening on stage at Deaf West Theatre was certainly not a choice to alter theater, but the by-product of a director with a flaccid imagination. I chalk this up to a phenomenal company whose new artistic directors and leaders simply chose the wrong guy for the job. But more and more in Los Angeles theater, even with classic works of literature, I am astounded and saddened by the deficiency of forward-thinking directors. “In a thousand variations, I am served the same thing over and over again—then I flee.”

photos by Karianne Flaathen

The Seagull
a double-cast production
the “Rubles” cast is reviewed
Antaeus Theatre Company
Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood
ends on April 15, 2012
for tickets, call 818.506.1983 or visit Antaeus

{ 1 comment }

Yale Udoff March 18, 2012 at 9:34 pm

I so totally agree with this insightful review. However, the reviewer was kinder to Jaramillo than I would have been — he seemed ready to play Tonto in a new Lone Ranger film. And, in the cast I saw, Gigi Bermingham was playing a dazed and unhappy housewife (Arkádina) who belonged in a 50’s television series; she lacked any sense of a grand dame of theatre.

Masha was outstanding, as was Gregory Itzin as Sorin. And Jules Willcox was a lovely Nina whose final act with Tréplev was touching and haunting. Others in the cast merely dutifully did their jobs. One of the worst Seagulls I have ever seen.

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