Chekhov’s Seagull Lands at the Huntington

For Boston College students to set foot in Boston University territory, there needs to be a good reason. Like, a really, really good reason. Like Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull being performed in one of BU’s theaters—a good enough reason. Despite my fierce loyalty to the BC/BU rivalry, when I heard that Tony and Emmy Award nominee Kate Burton (TV's "Scandal") was going to be starring in one of the most moving theatrical pieces of all time, there was no way I could say no.

Although I’m pretty sure it doesn’t need to be said, Burton shines and steals the spotlight by offering up a believable, energetic, and hysterical performance. That’s right—I just used hysterical to describe Chekhov, and no, I am not referring to the medical condition of hysteria, although there are certainly moments of that, too. Huntington took a risk and decided to amp up the comedy aspect of Chekhov’s tragic comedy. This risk paid off in the present-tense action of the play during acts one through three. As the audience first meets the characters of The Seagull, there are sarcastic and subtle one-liners delivered by the usually gloomy Masha (Meredith Holzman)—as she lusts for Konstantin—that left the audience holding their sides in laughter, despite the content behind the delivery. One of the earlier lines delivered by Masha that received laughs was her explanation for why she always wears black: “Because I’m in mourning for my life.” Despite the more gloomy implication, Holzman’s delivery was comedic—the first of many choices made by the director to emphasize the “funny” (rather, relatable or outlandish) part of suffering instead of the painful part.

Image via Huntington Theatre Company Facebook page

Photo courtesy of Huntington Theatre Company \ Facebook

The focus of Masha’s desire is Konstantin, the son of Burton in real life, Morgan Ritchie and the son of Burton’s character, Irina, in the play. Unfortunately, the genetic connection between Burton and Ritchie isn’t enough to make the characters’ relationship believable. I attribute the flatness of their chemistry to Ritchie, whose acting fell short in comparison to the rest of the very talented cast. As an audience member, I couldn’t help but wonder how much life imitates art for Ritchie, in terms of being outdone by his mother in their profession.

In the play, Konstantin is an aspiring playwright, who is depressed living under the spotlight of Irina, who is a very successful actress and a very judgmental critic of her son’s work. It doesn’t help that Irina is dating an author, Trigorin (Ted Koch), whose work she praises in contrast to her disapproval of her son’s work in Act One. Irina is a traditionalist and she expresses her view of what theater should be by delivering a soliloquy from Hamelt in front of her son’s audience before the curtain lifts. Konstantin is much more contemporary, and he strives to make “new forms” of theatre, to the point where in Ritchie’s one fleeting moment of passion, he exclaims, “We need new forms, and if we can’t have them, then we’re better off with no theater at all!” The new form of theatre is what begins the performance of The Seagull and what the stage is set for at the top of Act One. Konstantin prepares to debut his newest play, in which the object of his desire, an aspiring young actress named Nina (Auden Thornton) is cast as the lead. Nina is the one who utters the namesake line; to describe why despite her father’s disapproval she keeps coming back to Konstantin’s estate and to theater, she compares herself to being like a seagull drawn to a lake.

The image of the seagull returns again and again during the performance--a true gift of Chekhov to director, Maria Aitken. Aitken gracefully shapes the actors’ reactions to how each character views the symbol of the seagull. Nina, of course, is the most directly related, as it is her youth and possibility most similar to the freedom and opportunity of a flying bird. Simultaneously, just as a seagull is doomed to return again and again to the same shore, Nina dooms herself by falling in love with Irina’s lover, Trigorin. In true Chekhov fashion, Nina inspires Trigorin to write a short story about a man who meets a younger woman and then decides to “ruin her life because he has nothing better to do.”

The cast translates this theme of unrequited love beautifully. Koch especially shines here, as he plays the focal point in one of the central love triangles between himself, Nina, and Irina. Burton ably portrays a crazed lover terrified of losing Trigorin in a scene that brings the esteemed and self-absorbed actress to her knees begging her love to leave with her after he wavers about staying at the estate. Thornton also delivers a powerful performance, and a scene between her and Koch is my favorite of the production. As Trigorin prepares to leave, Nina gives him a medallion as a parting gift engraved with a page and line number from Trigorin’s own book. Trigorin goes to look up the line in his novel, and enters back onstage quietly, book in hand, repeating the line Nina quoted from him for him, “If you ever need my life, come take it.” Koch left me speechless and in awe of how deeply he seemed to be affected by the quote, and I’m pretty sure I felt my heart break each time his facial expression changed as he softly spoke the words over and over, ignoring Irina across the stage. For me, this was the poignant moment from the production that I find myself thinking of again and again after leaving the theater.

Image via Huntington Theatre Company Facebook page

Photo courtesy of Huntington Theatre Company \ Facebook

The other most resonating aspect of the performance was the astounding lighting design, complimented by a realistic and magical set. The credit goes to Lighting Designer, James F. Ingalls, and Scenic Designer, Ralph Funicello. There were two sets, the transition discretely occurred during intermission. In the first half of the show, the set was breathtaking. On stage were copious amounts of wonderful, huge, graceful birch trees—a Chekhov essential done very, very well. There was a small, wooden stage complete with an overhead beam and nude curtain in the center of the stage with rows of wooden benches in front of it for Konstantin’s play. Silhouettes of branches framed the top of the performance area, and there hung a glowing moon behind Konstantin’s stage that slowly rose throughout the act until the lighting had entirely changed from a glowing red at the start of the show, to an enchanting deep blue for the transition into night. Downstage was lit with streaks of light that looked just like gently falling sunlight between trees during the period of daytime, and those beams also adjusted to simulate moonlight later on. The shifts in lighting were done by very discrete cues and the lighting alone could have pleased an audience for an hour. In the second half of the show, the stage was set to be inside the estate: a large room with antique and elaborate furnishings—a favorite was the lighting fixtures on the wall with a silver seagull (or, ambiguous bird) perched on the top—and high walls that seemed to be faded and peeling along the top just enough to transport the audience back into Russia many, many years ago. The key feature of this set had to be the big windows in the back of the room that had birch tree branches behind them that would move with wind and that beautifully caught the light spilling through the window into the room just like moonlight. Again, I have endless praise for Ingalls—the lighting, for me, made this production.

This wonderfully executed world of the play was matched with a filling and robust cast. Even the minor roles, like the house staff, were able to breathe life through their actions, and each seemed to have a clear want and will every time he or she entered the room. The facial expressions of the housekeeper in response to Irina cheaply tipping the staff one ruble to split among the three of them was hysterical and impressive—a testament to the strength of the cast and how wonderfully they took on Chekhov’s multilayered work. That being said, the weakest part of the Huntington’s production was Ritchie’s portrayal of Konstantin.

Konstantin is one of the most essential components to The Seagull—each of the other main characters have some connection to him that Chekhov explores: his relationship to his mother in respect to their interpretations of worthy art, his involvement with Nina, his unrequited love with Masha, and his contrast as an artist with Trigorin’s more commercial success through writing. There needs to be passion coursing through Konstantin’s veins so that the audience can feel his desire to create new forms, his desire to be loved, and his urge to create. With Ritchie, I saw none of that. Even in the intended-to-be climatic scene before his suicide, when Konstantin is shredding his papers, I saw not the last attempt at creation through destruction that Chekhov presumably intended, but instead merely an actor ripping paper to music because the director said he should do that. Despite the disappointment that was Ritchie, the rest of the cast and designers more than made up for him.

The last element of the production worthy of copious praise is the way the set transitioned to reflect plot. In the first three acts, the setting was the bright, dreamy, summery stage and birch tree scene with the beautiful sun- and moonbeam lighting. The characters were all whimsical in the ways they walked, and even their laughter seemed to sound like wind chimes perfectly blown by the summer breeze that is Chekhov’s beautiful language. The tone of the performance was also more comedic, as previously mentioned. Yet, when Act four arrived, the set had transformed from the open outdoorsy summer day to a cold, slightly rotting, stuffy interior room. The characters seemed to be swimming in the vastness of the space, and their entrances and exits were much more strict and noticeable due to the addition of functioning doors. The plot itself also shifted towards more aggressive moments—the first to come to mind is the screaming match of Irina and Konstantin that comes in sharp contrast to her delicately wrapping his bandage just moments before. In the fourth act the lighting was chilly and white, and the top perimeter of the set’s walls were curled and dirty.

Overall the actors delivered their lines without the spunk and comedic deliveries of the first three acts, and instead fully embraced the tragedy half of Chekhov’s work. While perhaps, the first reaction of the audience was a kind of resentful confusion as to why the jump in tone and mood was so extreme, this was, in fact not a poor choice in design and direction, but an intentionally jarring transition. Chekhov has passed two years between the end of Act Three and the beginning of Act Four, so the drastic difference is warranted. In my opinion, this shift was one of the best decisions made by the production team: I thought it perfectly expressed the change from the lighter, anything is possible summer days, to the more tragic reality of all things coming to end in The Seagull. If only the performance didn’t also need to come to end.