Nineteenth-century Russian playwright Anton Chekov explored some of the deepest themes of the human condition through characters trapped in scenarios that he considered comedies — at least in an Aristotelian sense. But the narratives often concluded with decidedly less-than-funny results.
For Aristotle, comedy involved “the action of inferior people,” often characters with a single, fatal flaw. His comedic characters exhibited ridiculous emotional or intellectual deformities that drove their fates.
The Seagull, which opened at American Players Theater Aug. 9, is a comedy in the Aristotelian sense. Credit director John Langs for successfully bridging the gap between the classical and contemporary definitions of the comedic genre.
At its heart, The Seagull is the story of its characters’ unrequited love, both for each other and themselves. Each suffers from fatal flaws that color the narrative’s climax.
Chekov casts his four main protagonists as successful or would-be authors and actresses, and the two generations of strivers show that art can both reflect and occlude lives basted in the ennui of inactivity.
Konstantin (Christopher Sheard), is a would-be playwright who desperately craves the attention of his mother Irina (Tracy Michelle Arnold), a self-absorbed actress and celebrity of the first order. She believes he is “Kiev bourgeois,” a flaw that she attributes to her first and unhappy marriage.
Irina is devoted to Trigorin (Jim DeVita) a celebrated author-du-jour who is puzzled by his celebrity, lives life largely as fodder for his stories, and admits he would rather be fishing than writing.
Trigorin is satisfied to be Irina’s emotional “kept man,” until he meets Nina (Laura Rook). The self-identified “seagull” of the title, Nina is an aspiring young actress desperately seeking validation and a career.
Konstantin also is in love with Nina. Watching Trigorin take center stage not only with the women he loves but in the career he craves does not make for an amiable foursome.
The story unfolds on the country estate owned by Irina’s brother Sorin (Robert Spencer), an aging uncle whom Konstantin adores.
But wait, there’s more. Masha (Anne E. Thompson), the dour, black-clad daughter of Sorin’s estate overseer Shamraev (James Pickering) and his wife Polina (Colleen Madden) has a crush on Konstantin. Masha marries the well-meaning, whining schoolteacher Medvedenko (Tim Gittings) out of boredom.
Polina seems to have a crush on Dr. Dorn (James Ridge, Madden’s real-life husband), and she decries his attraction to Irina and all other women. Sorin, meanwhile, waxes despairingly about having never married or become a man of letters — an overt reflection of the play’s themes for those who might have missed them.
Langs navigates the intricacies of this maze of relationship with considerable aplomb and the help of a first-rate cast. The 90-minute first act is played for broad laughs to an appreciative audience. Several scenes of well-orchestrated chaos and finely nuanced performances earned spontaneous applause.
Konstantin and Nina are as earnest in their youthful desires as their elders are oblivious to all but the immediate world surrounding each of them. Yet each has his or her own trials and, despite their assumed social status, no one seems to have any money. More significantly, few appear to have anything to do on Sorin’s country estate, which adds to the palpable sense of frustration and despair.
The 40-minute second act, as expected, has few laughs. The play’s tragic resolution is foreshadowed and expected by everyone but the characters themselves, who fill their idle time with meaningless games of Lotto that no doubt signify the personal inertia each feels.
One delightful and unexpected surprise is a trio of musically talented farm hands used to introduce the play and hang around for comic effect throughout it. Sergei Belkin on accordion, Nick Ehlinger on viola and Jake Penner on guitar played with enthusiasm and earned their own applause.
The Seagull continues in repertory through Sept. 20 at American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road in Spring Green. For play dates and tickets, phone 608-588-2361 or go to americanplayers.org.