Saturday, July 9, 2011

Saturday Night on the Upper West Side: Hudson Warehouse presents Chekhov's "The Seagull" at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument

Tonight we had the great pleasure of attending the opening of Hudson Warehouse's riveting, thoughtful and delightfully entertaining production of The Seagull, directed by Tom Demenkoff and featuring this company's always wonderful actors. We immensely enjoyed this innovative version of Anton Chekhov's dark, meditative but often very funny comedy.

First of all, we have to acknowledge the Hudson Warehouse's brave and daring choice of this play; it's not an easy work or one that easily ingratiates itself to audiences. We first read it as a teenager, maybe 43 years ago, when we were taking Advanced Drama at Midwood High School, reading Stanislavski (thanks to our brilliant teacher, Harris Sarney, who assigned his book on the "Method") and every play in sight.

Chekhov's major plays were exhilarating to us at age 17 on the page, but we could see how difficult they could be for actors when we watched other students try scenes in high school and college and saw a few productions. As Ben Brantley -- who's name-checked to fun effect as one of the contemporary theater references in this Seagull -- said, if you leave a production of a Chekhov play thinking of only one person, even if that person is Judi Dench or Meryl Streep, it hasn't done its job.

Here is where the Hudson Warehouse Seagull succeeds magnificently, by avoiding any particular star turns (the applause-needy, overly dramatic actress Arkadina can overshadow the others) and working together as a troupe, yet letting even the minor characters have their sublime moments. Mr. Sarney used to quote Stanislavski on there being no bit parts, only bit actors.

This production has neither bit parts nor bit actors. In some ways and at some times to us, it seemed to be on one level the story of a rebellious, artistic son, Konstantin (Nick DeVita, with just the right blend of passion and petulance), who fails to connect with his equally rebellious, artistic mother, Arkadina (Roxann Kraemer, who balances her egotistical flamboyance with a pathetic vulnerability). Neither of them is as artistic as they think they are, and Chekhov's play is sort of a meditation on the creators and interpreters of theater, literature and the other arts.

The rest of the cast is also superb. We're a big fan of David Palmer Brown from previous Hudson Warehouse productions, and we probably would have cast him as Sorin, too. His obvious physical decline with each act is less heartbreaking than his older man's regret at having missed out on the things he once dreamed about. But he seems aware enough to know that he made the safest choices and allows himself a little self-criticism in the form of occasionally bitter humor.

Amanda Renee Baker, as Masha, settles for less than her dreams too, marrying the hapless, annoyingly helpful schoolteacher Medvienko (Roger Dale Stude) instead of waiting around for Konstantin to notice her. Like many of the other characters in The Seagull, she can simultaneously express regret and rage.

Alex Viola's Nina, most associated with the symbolic eponymous bird killed by Konstantin (which appears first as the chalk sketch of the seagull at the start of the play; you can see it on the program's cover), transforms from the young, ditsy, exuberantly sexy girl she is at the start, in the opening play-within-a-play, to a tragic figure, worn by the waste of time and death and failed relationships, in a way that the characters who've remained on Sorin's estate do not.

By the way, the north portico of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument makes an excellent setting for The Seagull. Director Tom Demenkoff and the actors use the wonderfully idiosyncratic space to good advantage, as is almost always true of the Hudson Warehouse productions. (Equally true is that during the performance, a few random people with bicycles, stollers or skateboards walk across the stage, trying to appear as unobtrusive as possible. This is part of the charm of these productions, and they become as much the invisible background noise as the M-5 buses on Riverside Drive, which we don't even hear anymore.)

In some ways Dorn, the affable doctor who in Michael Selkirk's portrayal, can turn on a kopek from bemused detachment to passionate involvement, is the fulcrum of the play, its raisonneur (a term we learned in Prof. Spencer Roberts' Russian Literature class at Brooklyn College).

Margaret Catov as Paulina, Masha's mother, is another of Chekhov's characters made poignant and somewhat bitter by disappointment

while life's regrets have made her husband, Shamraeff (David Allison DeWitt), querulous but eloquent in his misplaced nostalgia. Each of Chekhov's characters is both silly and profound, a hero and a villain.

Or are they? Brad Coolidge gives a dynamic performance as Trigorin, the nearest thing to a "villain" in the comedy -- but he gives the pretentious, fashionable novelist, more thoughtless than heartless, the same sense of the ridiculously tragic that permeates the lives of everyone on Sorin's country estate.

When it opened in 1896, The Seagull outraged some people; many in the opening night audience in Moscow hissed and booed. The first reviews were equally negative, causing Chekhov to wonder if “I had lost all sensitivity.” But as Ben Brantley has written,
at least one member of that first audience, the jurist and literary aficionado Anatoly Koni, believed the play had achieved something new and important. “It is life itself onstage,” wrote Koni to Chekhov, “with all its tragic alliances, eloquent thoughtlessness and silent sufferings — the sort of everyday life that is accessible to everyone and understood in its cruel internal irony by almost no one.”

Spoiler alert: Later in Riverside Park, as the four boys -- close to our age when we first read The Seagull -- who watched from their perches onstage with rapt attention -- were wildly playing soccer after sitting still for so long, we heard them talk about how they "didn't expect an ending like that" -- with a suicide -- in a play its author labeled (correctly, we think) a comedy.

For us, the surprise was how fresh and contemporary the Hudson Warehouse production made this Russian classic. We're grateful we went, and you should too: it will be playing every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening for the rest of July.

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