Bird Watching:
A Review of Chekov's The Seagull

by Tony Phillips

What if you gave a posh artists’ retreat on your Russian country estate and nobody came? This seems to be the question director Trevor Nunn keeps bumping up against as he rolls his Royal Shakespeare Company into Brooklyn. I’d already reconciled myself to not seeing Sir Ian McKellan in the mere three of eleven performances he deigned to play Sorin in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. After going full-frontal as Lear — the play that is supposedly being performed in repertory with this one — I’m sure Sir Ian has dates lined up with some of Bushwick’s finest and this was, after all, a Saturday night.

The real disappointment was arriving to find Frances Barber — who shines as Lear’s eldest daughter — was also AWOL. Surely Ms. Barber’s Arkadina would be compared to the legendary turn Meryl Streep took in The Public Theater’s vastly superior 2001 Central Park production, but instead of turning cartwheels, Ms. Barber tumbled out of The BAMbill on an insert announcing her as a no-show, resulting in a Vegas style shuffling of the casting deck. Perhaps Ms. Barber was downed by Bushwick’s notorious bedbugs, but I always thought the Brits were made of steelier stuff. But then I guess they did invent punk.

The play itself, which is more than one-hundred-years-old, has become no less timely since Meryl’s histronic cartwheels in the park. In fact, it seems like Chekhov could have written it for Meryl’s erstwhile co-star Lindsay Lohan. It concerns the teenage actress Nina — a milquetoast Romala Garai — who wanders over from a neighboring estate only to be destroyed by the idle rich out of, well, their idleness, or as Chekhov puts it "then a man comes along, sees her, and ruins her life because he has nothing better to do."

There’s also a daisy chain of romantic intrigue: the famous actress Arkadina shows up with her handsome trick Trigorin, but flirts with almost everyone else, including, alarmingly in this production, her own son Konstatin, who in turn has the hots for Nina who blows him off for Trigorin and so it goes. It’s all played out on a handsome set designed by Christopher Oram that suggests a ruined opera house, but the main problem with this production is that Chekhov essentially writes two types of women: the opera houses and the ruined. We either get the fierce cartwheelers like Arkadina here or Natasha in Three Sisters or maudlin babes waiting around to be destroyed like Nina here or The Three Sisters themselves.

With our main cartwheeler out turning cartwheels in Bushwick, I was forced to find a new girl to hang with at Sorin’s place. And although I’d always seen her prior as a Chekhovian doormat, this production’s Masha, given full squeaky voice by Monica Dolan, is a revelation. Although she spends most of the play in long black dresses pining for Konstantin she at least has the good sense to get pie-eyed doing it. So if you’re going to hang with this crew for the three-hour-plus running time, stick close to Masha. She’s got the wodka and the snuff and she’s not afraid to use it.