Chekhov's 'Seagull' gets a '60s treatment

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By Doug Deuchler

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While purists may take issue with contemporary acting troupes who alter the original time periods of classic plays, I often find such shifts fascinating. Dr. Jason Narvy's direction of Anton Chekhov's late-19th-Century tragic-comedy The Seagull, performed by the Artists of Concordia Theatre at the Madison Street Theatre in Oak Park, moves the drama about 70 years from 1895 provincial Russia to a sort of lakeside artistic commune in Upstate New York in the mid-1960s. 

So this student production is no museum piece. The fresh setting makes the show more accessible. The characters and conflicts seem up-to-date and timeless, though why everyone in this bohemian enclave of free spirits has such a long Russian name does seem a tad puzzling.

The play was identified by Chekhov as a comedy though there are no real jokes, per se. Yet the audience laughed often, especially during the first half. Though there is heartache at the core of The Seagull, the director strikes a good balance between comedy and tragedy. The last portion of the drama shifts to a much darker mood.

The large number of characters with complicated lives and relationships are an extended social circle of both working and aspiring artists — friends and relatives — who have gathered at a country estate to see the first performance of a new experimental play written by Konstantin (Athony Huspen), who dreams of revolutionizing theater. 

The 15 student performers create a tight ensemble piece. Though the cast is large, the plot focuses on the romantic and artistic relations of a handful of main characters. There is enough angst, depression, love triangles, and unsatisfying personal relationships for at least a couple of seasons of a daytime soap opera. 

Konstantin, an insecure amateur playwright who hates his famous actress mother's traditional, middle-of-the-road art, wants to create dramatic works that break from tradition. His play stars the object of his obsession: vivacious, aspiring actress Nina (Katie Butler). 

Konstantin's diva mother, Irina Arkadina (Rachel Hamrick), is neglectful and imperious, obsessed with her own fame. She tries to mask her age by distancing herself from her grown son. Arkadina's involved with a self-centered, somewhat younger, second-rate writer named Boris Trigorin (Matt Bender) who also falls for Nina. 

Though Konstantin is hungry for his mother's love, Arkadina mocks her emotionally fragile son's play. She calls it "symbolist raving."

Konstantin loses both his mother and then his beloved Nina to Trigorin.

Dark and angry Masha (Michah Streubel) longs for Konstantin but he does not return her love since he's smitten with Nina. So Masha enters a loveless marriage when he rejects her.

It's undoubtedly difficult to keep all this plot summary straight but the live performance flows briskly and is easy to follow.

Morgan Schussler-Williams plays an ailing relative who owns the lakeside estate where this holiday takes place. If memory serves, this character was a male originally.

Stumbling, ineffectual school teacher Medvendenko (Ryan Kenney) provides periodic comic relief.

Music from a half-century ago — especially the folk tunes and protest songs of the mid-'60s — are heard throughout the evening: "If I Had a Hammer," "Blowin' in the Wind," "We Shall Overcome," and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" Pop hits, too, like "Moon River" and "The House of the Rising Sun," reinforce the conflict of values at play in the culture of the period. A doctor, Phillip Heppe, is always singing snips of old show tunes. One of the actors plays guitar and accompanies himself.

The striking, modernistic set depicts both the woodsy lakeside locale as well as the interior of the country estate. Unfortunately, the set designer's name was omitted from the program.

The assistant director is Geordie Denholm. The stage manager is Hunter Bloom, with assistance provided by Mike Fanuke and Arianna Jordan.

The production values are very strong. Christina M. Leineke designed the mid-1960s costumes. Her work is especially striking whenever Arkadina comes onstage in Audrey Hepburn or Ava Gardner showbiz attire. 

A blonde mid-20th-century hi-fi console figures prominently in several scenes.

I was in college during this period — after beatniks but before hippies — so I well recall when the rumblings of change and the rise of the counterculture were causing conflict in many aspects of American life. Konstantin's play-within-the-play reminded me of many of the "Happenings" that were staged by young avant-garde theater troupes. 

Good college productions are exciting, and this busy slice-of-life drama about people falling in and out of love, Anton Chekhov's first major play, is strong and full of intense conflict. When The Seagull was first staged in Moscow in the 1890s, it got booed off the stage. But for one more weekend we're lucky to have the opportunity to see for ourselves a solid production of this 120-year-old classic that once upon a time signaled a new direction in theater. 

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