Seen Off Broadway: I’ve had a flock of Seagulls this season. First came a traditional rendering at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this fall, via the Royal Shakespeare Company. Not long ago I caught up with Sidney Lumet’s little-seen 1968 film of Chekhov’s masterpiece, highlighted by Vanessa Redgrave’s incandescent performance as Nina. And now we have the Classic Stage Company’s version, which Moscow Art Theatre director Viacheslav Dolgachev has staged in a very “American” way, by which I mean the actors give looser-limbed performances, in a colloquial translation by Paul Schmidt. That the theatre is quite modest in size and brings you that much closer to the playing on its thrust stage, a problem when the company is schticking it up and manufacturing “excitement” for its productions. But with this season’s reasonably sober Richard III and the excellent new drama New Jerusalem Classic Stage has been on its best behavior, and the clear-headed approach allows this Seagull to take wing.
Chekhov’s meditation on the intersection (and collision) of life, love and art oscillates between high comedy and the deepest tragedy, and a good cast captures the nuances and inflections. Beautifully costumed by Suzy Benzinger and attractively coiffed by Paul Huntley, Dianne Wiest makes a marvelously monstrous Arkadina, one of the great “diva” roles. She chomps down hard on son Kostya (Ryan O’Nan), who, at least in the first half, bites back formidably. Dolgachev creates a real sense of ensemble, with star moments: Annette O’Toole portrays Paulina with surprising vigor, and David Rasche is a persuasively world-weary Dr. Dorn, withholding treatment for whatever is ailing the aged Sorin (John Christopher Jones). Film actress Kelli Garner is a bit toothsome for Nina, but at least she is trying out a characterization, unlike the formless interpretation by Romola Garai for the RSC. And I give the director credit for getting a real performance out of Alan Cumming, who has been content to play “Alan Cumming” since his Cabaret heyday. Though not fully shaped, his gossip-sniffing Trigorin, jotting down great thoughts on notepads, is a good try.
So is Santo Loquasto’s set, an off-season assemblage of slightly distressed period detail clustered on the back wall. The floor is mirrored, representing the adjoining lake and, metaphorically, the obsessive self-interest that defines many of the characters (the unselfish ones are punished). The scaffold theatre that Kostya “hangs” himself in before his distracted guests is nicely etched, if cumbersome to move around. (The little spritzes of paper precipitation that end each act are however a frill.) The mirroring might also be distracting if Brian MacDevitt hadn’t underplayed the lighting, giving it a textured 19th century cast. Jorge Muelle’s sound design accentuates a few notes of mournful music that play throughout sections of the piece, and the final gunshot has rarely been as piercing. The Seagull plays through Apr. 13.
Liberty City is a solo show featuring April Yvette Thompson, but it is very much a collaboration between her and co-writer and director Jessica Blank, who also created The Exonerated. Her performance is an explication, of a turbulent 1970s childhood in one of Miami’s roughest neighborhoods. Her Cuban-Bahamanian father was a proud community organizer with a strong, maybe overpowering, grasp on history; her African-American mother was part of the movement but turned to religion in the wake of setbacks endemic to life on the margins, not the least of which was the insidious spread of crack cocaine. The New York Theatre Workshop show sounds like the kind of well-intentioned dirge that passes for too many one-person productions, but Thompson has a good sense of humor to go along with her look back in anger.
She also has the benefit of a strong design team watching her back. Antje Ellermann’s set is divided between a kitchen and a home office, which the kids loped through (the soundtrack album of The Wiz, pulled out from the record collection, is a nice period-setting detail). Projection screens framed as billboards fill the upper half of the stage and abound with neighborhood imagery. Tal Yarden’s video design, David Lander’s lighting, and Jane Shaw’s sound design fuse during the performance’s final setpiece, as chunks of Liberty City and the dreams of Thompson’s family go up in smoke as riots and arson erupt in 1980. It’s a chilling display and an artful use of searing news footage by Yarden, underscored by the other elements. The moving finale, where Thompson reconciles with the ghosts of her past and her ancestry, takes place on a small patch of Bahamas sand at the front of the stage. Liberty City, a standout in a weak season for self-expression, also closes this Sunday.
A British demolitions expert implodes in Parlour Song, a marital melodrama at the Atlantic Theater Company through March 29. Jez Butterworth’s play indulges in a few high-flown metaphors to express a woman’s discontentment with her lot in wife; she is apparently stealing from her husband, and stashing the goods somewhere. Guys, it all boils down to this: If you’re a decent, schlubby guy like Chris Bauer (who played Mitch in the recent revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, and basically plays him again here) with the good fortune to be married to the lovely, if somewhat vague and joyless Joy of Emily Mortimer, keep her far away from your friend, Jonathan Cake. Cake, whose Greek statue physique displays in the Lincoln Center Cymbeline and the Atlantic’s Almost an Evening were season highlights for segments of the audience, takes his shirt off again (it must be in his contract), and the union is off its pins shortly thereafter.
That development you can see coming, and there are few surprises in the show, which has been briskly directed by Neil Pepe. But the actors are strong and the design spot-on, as the English might say. Robert Brill’s skeleton of a house set has hidden cavities, as lighting designer Kenneth Posner exposes in the piece’s most expressive moment. Sarah Edwards’ costumes and Obadiah Eaves’ audio design also help flesh out the insinuations in Butterworth’s writing. And here, too, are some well-timed projections, by Dustin O’Neill, which get the production off with a bang and detonate at key moments.
I was going to close with an entry on The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, a new, projection-driven musical at the Vineyard Theatre. I enjoyed what I saw of the show, which puts the animated whimsy of alternative press cartoonist Ben Katchor onstage on three screens as the performers unspool the plot. Early on, however, it was clear something was amiss, as error messages flashed by intermittently. Before long the projections died entirely, and the rest of the show was cancelled—something I don’t think has ever happened to me before. This has been a stellar year for projection, but an experience like this tempers my enthusiasm. If an actor falls ill another can go on in his or her place; no such luck when the principal scenic element of the show expires. Where was the backup? Note to Sunday in the Park with George: get additional units now and cover yourself thoroughly, as setbacks like these anger audiences and can reverse the course of experimentation quickly. —Robert Cashill
Set Construction: John Creech Design & Production
Lighting: Hayden Production Services
Audio: Masque Sound
Scenery Construction: Tom Carroll Scenery
Automation: Hudson Scenic
Lighting: Hayden Productions
Audio: One Dream Sound