Yasen Peyankov’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s SEAGULL proves a wry vehicle to showcase the talents of many of his fellow Steppenwolf ensemble members who haven’t graced the stage since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Peyankov’s adaptation is direct, self-aware, and rife with dry (extremely dry) humor. The ennui that pierces SEAGULL is deeply and obviously felt throughout this adaptation of the text. References to Chekhov’s native Russia abound in Peyankov’s script, but the language feels modern and direct.
Peyankov is particularly gifted at bringing out the anguish and existentialism that the characters in SEAGULL feel in a humorous way; the ennui is so directly presented that it’s impossible not to laugh. This is true from the beginning of the production. At the top of the play, schoolteacher Semyon Medvedenko (Jon Hudson Odom) asks his unrequited love Masha (Karen Rodriguez) why she always wears black. Masha’s response? “I’m in mourning for my life.” And Rodriguez’s clever delivery makes the line land even more.
Peyankov’s text is peppered with these kinds of humorous, quick-witted exchanges. Overall, the material brings out a swiftness and a wit that I haven’t witnessed in other productions of Chekhov plays. And while some scenes still meander, Peyankov’s adaptation on the whole has a welcome economy of language.
It should come as no surprise that the ensemble turns out strong performances as well, as the actors bring to life the numerous love triangles and existential musings that trouble the characters in SEAGULL. Caroline Neff dazzles as the aspiring actor Nina; Neff’s Nina at first seems naive and starry-eyed, and many of her early lines are delivered with lightness and curiosity. While Nina once loved Konstantin (Namir Smallwood), she’s perplexed by the play that he’s written for her to perform. When Nina encounters the more seasoned writer Boris Trigorin (Joey Slotnick), she becomes almost instantly intrigued. But unfortunately for Nina, he’s involved with Konstantin’s mother Irina (Lusia Strus, fully playing the role of the diva). I won’t go on listing out all the love triangles in SEAGULL, for I think many readers will be familiar, but the actors deftly capture the messy layers of their interpersonal relationships. Smallwood is a knockout as Konstantin; his performance is measured but also deeply emotional at the same time. He deftly represents Konstatin’s interiority, the anguish of his unrequited love, and his frustrations as he tries to find the right words to put pen to paper. Keith Kupferer is also a welcome presence as Ilya, the keeper of Irina’s estate; he has one of the more overtly humorous roles, and he makes sure the laughs land. Sandra Marquez plays off Kupferer nicely as Ilya’s wife Polina, who has an unnatural obsession with the weather. Jeff Perry plays Irina’s ailing brother Peter as sufficiently frazzled and frustrated at his lack of treatment options. Elijah Newman is sweet as Konstantin’s stagehand Yakov, and Eric Simonson rounds out the cast as Yevgeny Dorn, a doctor and family friend who is the only one that seems interested in Konstantin’s play. While Peyankov’s script makes it a bit tricky to understand the characters’ relationships from the outset, it becomes clear by the play’s end. The actors also approach the material with so much generosity; they all have their moments to shine, but they’re equally dedicated to playing off one another as the text demands.
The in-the-round setup means that audiences are able to see the action from close up from any seat in the house. But interestingly enough, the amount of playing space for the actors is smaller than a more traditional proscenium setting. Todd Rosenthal’s set consists primarily of open space, but with some surprise elements that provide visual delight (even if those elements are underused). Ana Kuzmanic’s costume designs have a sense of timelessness that echo the general themes of ennui and the human reasons for being that the play reinforces. Marcus Doshi’s lighting design punctuates each scene, and Pornchanok Kanchanabanca’s sound design and original music has a sense of whimsy (I found it particularly clever that the sound design includes actual seagull sounds; it’s just the right amount of cheeky for the production).
Near the beginning of SEAGULL, Peter remarks “Without theater, life is impossible.” And indeed, this production nicely showcases Steppenwolf’s excellent ensemble and the idea that live theater and art may be what gives us some purpose. And while Peyankov’s adaptation didn’t make me into a raving Chekhov fan, I greatly admire how he has presented the text and how the actors engage with it under his direction. The material has a delightful self-awareness to it, and it’s all the more effective because the actors lean into that wholeheartedly.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s SEAGULL runs through June 12. Tickets are $20-$88. Visit Steppenwolf.org/seagull.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com