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02.09.11

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Phaedra
Photograph by David Allen
TONS OF LOVE: Christine Albright and John Tufts channel Chekov's exploding youthful passions.

Desperate Measures

Chekhov's 'Seagull' takes flight at MTC

By David Templeton


When Anton Chekhov's The Seagull was first staged in 1896, it was a spectacular failure, inspiring outbursts of loud, indignant derision—much the way people in sports bars reacted to the Black Eyed Peas' halftime show during last weekend's Superbowl. Eventually, though, The Seagull found its audience, and once Chekhov's reputation as a major playwright was secured, a long line of plays (several of them considered to be among the greatest ever written) soon followed.

Last week, Marin Theatre Company launched a three-week run of Seagull (dropping the The for some reason, while thankfully restraining themselves from adding an exclamation point) with a fresh, sexy new adaptation by Libby Appel. Appel, former director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, has established herself as an able re-interpreter of Chekhov. She is currently under commission to adapt all of Chekhov's major plays for OSF, where her riveting translation of The Cherry Orchard won raves a few years ago. With Jasson Minadakis directing the MTC production, what is made clear about Appel's work is how much she identifies with Chekhov as an artist and a human being.

This is a very personal, conspicuously smitten take on The Seagull. There were always a number of tentative love stories in The Seagull (Chekhov himself described the play as containing "tons of love"), but somehow Appel has emphasized the potency of Chekhov's numerous badly coupled would-be lovers. What becomes clear is that this story is one big clusterfuck of unrequited love.

At the country estate of Pyotr Sorin (Richard Farrell), the young playwright Konstantin (John Tufts, inventively bipolar in this role) has previewed his latest play, featuring a performance by his object of desire, Nina (Christine Albright, heartbreakingly good at playing Nina's brittle optimism and eventual shattered expectations). Konstantin's mother, Irina (Tess Malis Kincaid), a successful actress whose specialty is the very type of play her son is trying to subvert, has brought along her young lover, the middle-of-the-road celebrity author Trigorin (Craig Marker, playing Trigorin as slightly baffled, as if recently smacked in the head with a rock).

After the failure of Konstantin's play, which his mother and friends attack like the robots on Mystery Science Theater 3000, Nina becomes smitten with Trigorin, whose affections are vital to Irina's self-esteem. Even Konstantin's impulsive murder of a seagull, presented as a symbol of his endangered heart, is not enough to win Nina back. Swirling around the Konstantin/Nina/Trigorin/Irina quadrangle are several other romantic collisions, as the various characters who live on Pyotr's land prove to all be in love with the people they should not be.

Love, in Chekhov's play, takes nearly as bad a beating as his character's hopes and dreams. Though marred here and there by some clunky direction (how can Trigorin sit next to a dead seagull for 10 minutes before suddenly noticing it?), Appel's adaptation is pleasingly crisp, and sharply to the point, allowing Chekhov's early artistic ambitions and youthful passions to fairly explode across the stage. Though clearly the work of a playwright with much to say (and much still to learn), this Seagull showcases what has allowed Chekhov's messy masterpieces to endure for over a hundred years.

'Seagull' runs TuesdaySunday through Feb. 27 at Marin Theatre Company. Show times vary. 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. $33$53; under 30, $20 all shows. 415.388.5208.


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