BACK STAGE WEST
April 16, 1998
at A Noise Within
Reviewed by Rob Kendt
When any play transports us to a distinctly observed world, and makes us forget for long moments at a time that we're sitting in a theatre at all, that is one level of success--a triumph, even.
Director Sabin Epstein's new production of Chekhov's early masterpiece The Seagull (in a new translation by Allison Comins-Richmond) is as perfectly conjured a physical production as I can recall on A Noise Within's raked in-the-round stage, with an open, airy design backed by a diffuse midday light, and later, by the sepulchral glow of candles (sets and costumes are by Angela Balogh Calin, the magical lighting by Ken Booth). And the mutual familiarity and ease of ANW's reliable and gifted ensemble players make for the kind of seamless, natural acting all around that is said to have distinguished the Moscow Art Theatre's work. Indeed, some of this production's best, most memorable moments crop up in its characters' distractedly intent attempts to kill time and stave off boredom, from their reading Maupassant aloud to each other in the garden to a late-night game of lotto. The importance of this lived-in feeling to a Chekhov production cannot be overstated, and Epstein's production nails it with seeming effortlessness.
Interweaving the threads of Chekhov's uneventful but high-stakes drama, however, is a knottier challenge, as it must also look as effortless as knitting. Here Epstein falters, though not for lack of ambition: He has clearly tried to radically reimagine the central Treplev/Arkadina relationship, casting the lumbering, awkward Patrick Richwood as the frustrated young writer whose mother (Jenna Cole) is a self-involved stage star. Treplev is most often cast and played as a quasi-Hamlet, a tortured son with Oedipal issues and a fundamental indecisiveness; here he's cast as Quasimodo.
The shock of Richwood's sibilant, frayed-nerve portrayal never subsides, even when he quiets down near play's end, and despite the actor's noble, even moving efforts, he can't make sense of this choice. It's a play, after all, about self-dramatizing people who can't see the folly of their own dilemmas, like mournful Masha (flawless Hisa Takakuwa) or pining Paulina (sharp Emily Heebner). But with a Treplev who comes off this pathetic and disturbed, rather than as merely the most tragically deluded member of this troupe of drama queens, the balance is off; the detachment and disdain of his mother and his erstwhile squeeze Nina (Gail Shapiro) looks exceptionally cold, while the special pleading on his behalf by Sorin (Mark Bramhall) and Dorn (Joel Swetow) seems especially simpering.
Elsewhere, Epstein's passionate approach pays off, in a few clinches and squabbles that register a bit more steam and boil than the usual autumnal Chekhov. As the deceptively retiring novelist Trigorin, Robertson Dean is charmingly dry if a bit smarmy; it wouldn't hurt if we saw a little more wear on his treads. As Arkadina, Cole magnificently captures the moral smallness of a grand manner, even as she hints at a molten core. And, miscast as the nubile country girl Nina, the very fine, 30ish actress Gail Shapiro is not many years away from playing a good Arkadina herself.
Call this new Seagull, then, a beautiful mistake--the kind of bittersweet, joyful failure which, in human form, was often the subject of Chekhov's drama.
"The Seagull," presented by and at A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Apr. 10-May 24. (818) 546-1924.