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Taking Wing 

Cal Shakes uses an appropriately light touch with Chekhov's "comedy"

Wednesday, Aug 21 2002
Last year Susannah Schulman played Juliet at the California Shakespeare Festival as a glossy-eyed mall girl in the blush of first love -- wisecracking, calculating, and spoiled. That's wrong for Juliet, who needs a touch of naiveté, but for the daughter of a wealthy Russian landowner in Chekhov's delicate masterpiece The Seagull it's spot-on. Her character's giddiness sets the tone for everyone else's optimism. Nina Zarechnaya nearly arrives late for a private summer performance of a new play by Constantin Treplev, the son of a famous actress, who wants to distinguish himself in the family's circle of artists and professionals. Nina plays the lead, so her presence is important. "Tell me I'm not late!" she urges Constantin. "I was afraid my father wouldn't let me come. ... The sky was red, the moon was rising, and I kept driving the horses, faster and faster. But now I'm so happy!" And she bursts into tears.

Schulman wears boots and yellow riding breeches. From the moment her Nina strides onstage, looking aristocratic and proper, she's in a tizzy. She wants a grand career, the world's esteem, the sweet ecstasies of love -- everything, in other words, that privileged girls from St. Petersburg to Southern California will always expect. Chekhov wrote her at an uncomfortable pitch between adult ardor and childish vanity, which isn't easy for an actor to sustain -- but Schulman does it. Even after Constantin's play goes down in flames -- derided by Irina, the playwright's own mother -- Nina takes the audience's polite applause seriously and covers her blushing face. Later she falls in love with Trigorin, the eminent middle-aged novelist, who's spoken for (by Irina). In a near-swoon she wanders upstage, toward the giant, yellow, phony moon erected as a set piece for Constantin's play, and effuses, "A dream!"

Chekhov set The Seagull on a dacha like his own country estate, where the play was written. The drama has a summery, outdoor lightness that director Jonathan Moscone captures by leaving most of his Bruns Memorial stage uncluttered (except for that moon) and open to the Berkeley hills. John Coyne's set consists of a swooping platform the color of dried blood and a few bare red-and-yellow trees. The action is realistic, but Moscone hasn't forgotten the element of impressionism or dreaminess that suffuses Chekhov's better-known plays with a famous tone.

He also remembers that Chekhov subtitled his play "a comedy in four acts." The playwright hated to hear about people crying at his shows. "Chekhov insisted to his dying day that all his major plays were comedies," writes Carol Rocamora, who translated my copy of The Seagull. This reaction of Chekhov's reminds me of Bertolt Brecht fuming at the Berlin audiences who thought Mother Courage was a moving tragedy. (Brecht wanted to stir people to outrage; he had no idea he'd written a masterpiece.) The Seagull ends in a suicide that invites darkness and pathos, so there's a real payoff for directors who let Nina crumple in the fourth act, wretched as an actress and resigned to bohemian misery. "I became -- I don't know, mediocre, pitiful. ... You have no idea how it feels, to know you're acting badly." Those could be the words of a ruined woman. Still, Nina isn't the one who shoots herself. Moscone takes the "comedy" label seriously, and finds a Chekhovian optimism in her lines about having the strength to endure and renouncing dreams of "glitter."

I think that's right. The result is a translucent, understated show. It might lack the weight (or melodrama) of certain other productions -- I've heard that Natasha Richardson was brilliant as a dark, ruined Nina, years ago in London -- but understatement seems closer to what Chekhov had in mind. Tom Stoppard's newish translation, used here, is also the one Mike Nichols directed last year in Central Park. Stoppard pared the script down and traded a few subtle, quiet moments for punch lines. (Most of my quotations come from Rocamora's version. I took notes; just not the right ones.)

Charles Dean plays Sorin, the estate owner, as a funny but mostly monotone old codger. Sean Dugan is an appropriately vain and useless Constantin. Emily Ackerman is a hilarious, snuff-snorting Masha, who runs the other way from her love for Constantin and marries a man she doesn't like. Kandis Chappell is an imperious Irina who seems to collapse from within when the gun fires offstage. James Carpenter does a beautiful job with Trigorin's speech about the woes of a successful second-rate writer. ("People read [me] and say, 'Oh yes, a very pretty talent, quite charming, but not a patch on Tolstoy --,'" while he paces the room and ignores a bloody sea gull on the floor.)

No one acts badly here, and the cast works together to conjure that elusive Chekhovian mood: Moscone's Seagull doesn't plunge into sorrow so much as flutter and fall, like a leaf.


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