Seen in Central Park: The Seagull.

It’s an event that many have hoped for and few believed would happen: Meryl Streep has returned to the New York stage. Her appearance in Mike Nichols' revival of Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park has caused havoc at the box office, as people have lined up for free tickets as early as 11pm for a performance the following night at 8. (The sight of people equipped with sleeping bags and candles, prepared to spend the night in Central Park, is not to be believed). It’s hardly been a trouble-free run, either; the actors have been forced to perform in a stifling heat wave, and the opening night performance, filled with Hollywood Friends of Mike such as Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, and Carrie Fisher, was rained out after 30 minutes or so.

However, if you can get into the Delacorte, it’s more than worth the trouble. It’s impossible to accept that Streep has not been on a stage for 20 years. As the aging actress Arkadina, she reveals each facet of her complex character with shocking ease. In her hands, Arkadina is stunningly beautiful, imperious, hilarious, the life of the party, a cunning seducer, and a narcissistic, destructive mother—all at once. It’s a performance of dizzying complexity.

She is more than matched by a cast that includes Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, Natalie Portman, John Goodman, Marcia Gay Harden, Larry Pine, Debra Monk, and Stephen Spinella. It’s all due to Nichols’ meticulous, finely calibrated direction, which moves from the muted hilarity of the opening to the tragic revelations of the final act without one false step. Chekhov’s characters are, by and large, fools, but they are also intelligent, often self-aware fools, and this production captures that contradiction better than any I have seen. Nichols and Co. have no business trying to do a play this intimate in a theatre as large as the Delacorte, but they’ve pulled it off, magnificently.

Bob Crowley’s production design raises an interesting problem. As one of the acknowledged superstars of theatre design, one usually goes to his productions expecting bravura, applause-inducing design. No such thing is needed here, and Crowley is smart enough to know it. His concept, in which the stage becomes a kind of extension of Central Park, is perfectly appropriate, and yet it’s an idea that has been employed time and again at the Delacorte. There’s nothing wrong with it, and yet I can't get over the idea that somehow this project hasn’t fully engaged the designer’s imagination. On the other hand, Crowley’s costume designs are finely detailed and reveal Streep in all her glory.

Jennifer Tipton’s lighting avoids the typical Delacorte approach, which is to blast the stage with light. At times, however, her more restrained approach results in stage pictures that are a little hard to see; her ideas would probably work better in an indoor venue. Ben Brantley, in his New York Times review, complained about the sound design, saying that it’s hard to match up bodies and voices. It was ever thus in the Delacorte and in fact Acme Sound Partners deserve credit for avoiding the snap, crackle, and popping noises that have often afflicted Shakespeare in the Park productions.

Rumor has it that The Seagull may transfer to the Lyceum in November for a limited run. The performance would only be better in a more intimate venue. One assumes Crowley will have to come up with a new scenic concept if The Seagull moves indoors. As for Meryl Streep, we have you back and we don’t intend to let you go.

David Barbour

Heard on the Street: Word of delays on two major upcoming film releases has been circulated. As fall schedules are firmed up, one title to drop off is Stephen Daldry's movie version of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours. The release of the starry (Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris) drama, made up of three story strands vaguely connected to each other and inspired by Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, has been postponed until possibly late 2002. David Hare adapted the complex narrative, which is set in the 1920s, 40s, and 90s. Seamus McGarvey is the director of photography, production designer is Maria Djurkovic, and costumes are by the great Ann Roth…Meanwhile, the appearance in theatres of The Matrix Reloaded, the first sequel to the 1999 Warner Bros. smash, has been pushed to May 2003 from late 2002. The film is being shot along with a third installment of the science-fiction adventures of Keanu Reeves' Neo and friends, which will probably be released in 2004. Preparations for the project, which will be primarily shot at Fox Studios in Sydney, Australia, are "staggering," according to producer Joel Silver. John Gaeta, Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor of the first film, returns, as do director of photography Bill Pope and production designer Owen Paterson. Seen on (a very small) stage: Shakespeare in a cabaret space. Artemis and the Wild Things presented The Tempest at the Duplex, a bar in the West Village with a cabaret theatre on the second floor. For $10 and a two-drink minimum, one could watch a Shakespeare play in air-conditioned comfort in two hours (rather than sweltering in Central Park all day hoping in vain for a ticket).

Costumes were designed by Shana Luther, who works at Parsons-Meares costume shop and designed for the New York Renaissance Faire for three years. (Actually, she designed only a few of the costumes for this show. In the great Off Off Broadway tradition, some of the costumes, were provided by the actors themselves from their own closets.) This is the first time Luther has worked with Artemis.

Prospero was dressed in plain muslin shirt and pants as befits a castaway, but he did have a reversible cape appliqued with magical-looking symbols on one side and a subtly shimmering gold on the other. His daughter Miranda wore a dress of pale beige leaf-print semi-sheer fabric. Caliban's costume was the most fanciful: leggings and jacket made of material that was actually scraps of many different colored and patterned fabrics stitched together for a shaggy, almost leafy look. "It was very time-consuming," Luther says, "but it turned out great." It must be said that the actor, Marshall "Dancing Elk" Lucas, really sank his teeth into the character of Caliban, hunching over and speaking with a mournfully twisted mouth, yet still enunciating clearly.

Lighting for the production was by Duplex resident LD Tom Honeck. The first scene, which is the storm and shipwreck, had blue backlight with some high red sidelight and strobe flashes for lightning. For most of the rest of the play, the cyc had foliage patterns in pink, green, and blue. The backlight was a combination of blue and the standard cabaret hot pink. Ariel's scenes were highlighted with a spinning mirror ball casting green and yellow sparkles on the walls.

One thing I would have liked to have seen was maybe some kind of faux rock formation to cover the baby grand piano (which hogged nearly half the already small stage) and to give the actors something to hide behind in the eavesdrop scenes. But then, what's willing suspension of disbelief for?

The Tempest played at the Duplex through Saturday, August 18. Artemis and the Wild Things' next production will be Antony and Cleopatra, October 3-14 at the Jan Hus Playhouse at 351 East 74th Street. Shana Luther will again design costumes.

Amy L. Slingerland