Anton Chekhov subtitled his play “The Seagull:” “a comedy in four acts.” “The Seagull,” a comedy? That’s strange, considering the second line of the play is “I’m in mourning for my life.”
But as the director of this undergraduate production Adela Jaffe ’13 reminds us: “When you come to the theater, you are allowed to laugh at any moment.” Chekhov’s realistic depiction of the frailty of human nature makes the comedic aspect in “The Seagull” palpable. The clear failure of all the relationships in the play is almost excessive: Masha (Alina Aksiyote ’16), the estate manager’s daughter, is in love with young playwright Treplev (Zach Bell ’14), who is in love with actress Nina (Jessica Miller ’15), who ends up falling in love with the famous author Trigorin (Peter Lewis ’13). And, not surprisingly, none of them end up together.
Jaffe realized while putting up the show that there are many moments that aren’t “necessarily funny but end up being so.” And that, in and of itself, justifies Chekhov’s original subtitle — the hilarious performances of Juliana Canfield ’14 as the proud and needy performer Arkadina, and Eric Sirakian ’15 as the ignored schoolteacher Medvedenko are also a helpful addition.
What makes “The Seagull” unique in the Chekhov repertoire is that it’s not simply a depiction of life in a country house estate in Russia. As the Yale production begins, its characters are about to witness Treplev’s own play. In general, when an author like Chekhov incorporates a “mise en abyme” in his work — the mirroring effect of having a work of art within a work of art — he makes a statement about the medium he is using.
In this play, Chekhov presents the dichotomy between realism and a new and abstract form of art, symbolism. Treplev, a young and extremely sensitive character, claims in Act I that an artist should depict life “not the way it is, or the way it should be but the way we see it in our dreams.” While we can assume by his body of work that Chekhov was a realistic author, his main character’s passionate belief in new forms of art adequately proves that Chekhov found the symbolist aesthetics fascinating. “The Seagull” is not just about the struggles of artists; it’s about the nature of art itself. Even if Chekhov gives no clear answers, his characters embody his own contradictions.
The current production has constructed a simple yet beautiful stage. Set designer Griffin Collier ’13 ornamented the Afro-American Cultural Center with large white drapes. Coupled with the lighting, this set creates a series of interesting shadowing effects that are relevant to the material/ethereal divide presented in the play.
The subtle attire of Nina, who is garbed in the tones of a seagull, provides a suitable interpretation to the play’s emblematic title, while enhancing Miller’s effective and natural performance. Sound designer Josh Stein ’13 nicely incorporated Mikhael Glinka and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano pieces, compositions that could have easily been played in Chekhov’s time.
While the production had a confusing start, everything took shape after the intermission. By the end, the choices of the production made sense, capturing the play’s complex essence. With its astute handling of Chekhov’s harsh subject matter, this production brings the audience a little closer to his own perception of art.