‘Seagull’ review: blurring the lines of fiction

And then there’s this dead bird.

Feathered hen dead! Suicide! Ruin! Unhappy marriages! One way Love! Purulent resentment! “The Seagull” doesn’t sound like the kind of play that would tickle your funny bone, and yet Chekhov himself considered it a comedy. Most productions made it a tragedy (especially after founding Russian actor-director Konstantin Stanislavski reinterpreted it as such in one of his early productions).

Collins opts for both, focusing on comedy in the first half and making a bold turn towards tragedy in the second. So Masha isn’t the cool goth pining for the despondent artist, but an asshole in knee-high compression socks who shuffles across the stage while the sad bag Semyon trails behind her. Konstantin is not a misunderstood virtuoso but a solipsistic hipster of an artist with serious mommy issues. In the final scene of the first act, Gene, after comforting two distraught characters in a row, comically declares, “You are so upset! You are all so upset!

And yet, despite its playful humor and antics, the show often falls into lulls where it is mostly a rote version of Chekhov’s play.

It is only in the middle of the second act that the unforgettable change in the series occurs. The actors freeze, posing in almost suffocating silence for several minutes. The decor darkens and the fog spreads over the top of the stage. None of the actors speak, but we hear them read their lines in voiceover. We see Nina slumped in a chair in the corner, Irina sitting in an imposing pose front and center, her arms outstretched to either side to rest on the backs of the chairs, her legs cheekily crossed in front of her, and Ilya leaning against a pillar , head tilted to the side. The effect is haunting when paired with the disembodied voices. Instead of trying to seamlessly integrate both dark humor and doom, the production draws attention to each individually.

Chekhov’s play lends itself to dismantling and comic scrutiny. Take Aaron Posner’s postmodern remix, “Stupid _______ Bird,” which actually manages to strike the balance that the elevator repair service’s “Seagull” struggles with, splitting the difference between conscientious replication of the text (or at least parts of it) and an irreverent dispatch of the dominant ideas, themes and executions of the beloved work. Posner’s ambitious, if pretentious, play handles it a bit better thanks to an almost spartan commitment to its vanity, from script to stage.

“Seagull” is softer in the execution of its ideas, although it would benefit from engaging more in its experimental aspirations and clarifying its ideas about art. And it could further blur the line between performance and reality like in the opening scene, allowing the actors to speak more freely, to improvise, to share parts of themselves even as they inhabit their characters.

This production can get its audience thinking about art, experimentation, and truth, but can’t quite see those thoughts through. In the play, Konstantin states that we need new forms. This production may have inadvertently provided the answer: only if the artist is up to it.

Seagull

Through July 31 at NYU Skirball, Manhattan; nyuskirball.org. Duration: 2h50.

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