Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Some Nerve(s)

November 10, 2008

Kristin Scott Thomas and Peter Sarsgaard
Photo: Joan Marcus 2008

It’s fascinating how good the Royal Court Theater production of Chekhov’s The Seagull now playing on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theater truly is. Chekhov is one of those unfairly maligned playwrights like Shaw who certainly comes with baggage but is much better than most productions of his work would have you think. Oddly enough, the English seem to have cornered the market in intelligent engaging productions of the Russian masters in recent years, so, thank heavens that this winning ensemble found its way to New York this year. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I love Chekhov and I love this play. So much so that I’ve even suffered a musical adaptation of the work Gulls (I kid you not) that I still have not successfully purged from my memory. This incredible Broadway staging has largely corrected that situation, though, and should not be missed.

Why it works so well is manifold. First, there is a new translation. Christopher Hampton's take on the text is more modern and emotionally direct if perhaps less poetic than previously. It's a smart move that increases the sense of urgency. Meanwhile, director Ian Rickson doesn’t skimp on the comic aspects of the piece leaving it intact without any ironic modern cynicism. It’s never over the top, and Kristin Scott Thomas, the productions ostensible star, in the role of Arkadina gives a pitch perfect performance - dramatic but never silly.

But even though this is marketed as a star vehicle, there are too many excellent performances to count. Peter Sarsgaard’s interpretation of Trigorin is unique in my experience in that he elects not to portray the author as a brooding intellectual too wrapped up in his own ego to recognized the destruction he wreaks, but instead as a more ambivalent animal. Here Trigorin is an opportunist, getting by on a reasonable if not overwhelming talent and willing to take advantage of the situations presented to him. It’s a much colder and less forgiving portrayal which makes Nina all the more tragic. Nina in this setting, as well as her unsuccessful young suitor Konstantin, more clearly become the victims of their own idealism. Carey Mulligan is achingly good as Nina and opposite her Mackenzie Crook is boiling with anger always just below the surface but never erupting until the very end. It's enough to make you forget his days in the British version of The Office. I must also mention Zoe Kazan's Masha and understudy Jarlath Conroy as Dorin who portrayed the respectively zany and rational counterbalances in this careening emotional vortex. It’s incredibly touching. So much so that when Konstantin kills himself offstage at the end there were audible gasps from the audience on Sunday. Now that is not a sound one typically associates with Chekhov.


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