The expression "lead someone down the garden path" has a negative connotation, meaning to fool someone. It's something quite different in the opening of EgoPo director Lane Savadove's exciting production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull.
It's better experienced firsthand without explanation, so I'll leave that as a hint about the first of many delightful surprises in this smart and accessible production of a classic. Like many venerable plays, The Seagull (1895) is prone to self-consciously grim interpretation. Plays, however, are living things, and classics fare best when treated like new plays, without worshipful solemnity. For extreme examples of this point of view, see Aaron Posner's irreverent adaptation of The Seagull, Stupid Fucking Bird, which was well-received at the Arden last fall.
Savadove's unconventional opening serves to frame the play that Konstantin (Andrew Carroll) has written for his beloved Nina (Anna Zaida Szapiro) to perform for his actress mother Arkadina (Melanie Julian). Those who have seen The Seagull before will recognize that Konstantin's play is often portrayed as a stiff exercise, but here EgoPo reveals its theatrical qualities that the other characters fail to appreciate. Konstantin wants the play to "show life the way it is in dreams," but Nina laments, "It ought to have a love story."
In the first few minutes, Chekhov and EgoPo lay bare every character's lamentations, often self-torture about unrequited love and rhapsodies about art's meaning. They illustrate that The Seagull is a comedy about life's tragedies and reveals characters as real, vital, and relevant today as they were over 120 years ago. Any assumptions about Chekhov's work being gloomy or inert are banished.
While Konstantin's play isn't ridiculous, the characters in The Seagull, including him, often are -- in sympathetic ways. Carroll excels as a neglected child competing for his mother's attention. He's oblivious to the desperate affection Masha (Stephanie Iozzia) feels for him because he moons over Nina, whose attention is easily captured by Arkadina's lover Trigorin (Ed Swidey).
Szapiro's Nina is the production's most successful interpretation, which in this lovely production says a lot. She's often played as a self-torturing idealistic dreamer, but Szapiro reveals the desperate child within, offering herself to Trigorin while asking, "What does fame really feel like?" That he hates his fame as a writer of popular stories doesn't register with her, she's so starstruck. Her story -- especially the outcome of her affair with Trigorin -- feels contemporary, in the best way. There's no effort to act Russian or 19th century, as one sometimes sees in Chekhov productions; EgoPo's fine cast acts like people.
Also fascinating in this rich world are Eric Kramer as Dr. Dorn, the family friend whom the caretaker's wife, Paulina (Kirsten Quinn), loves. Her husband Shamrayev is a comical buffoon played by Mark Knight. Dane Eissler's Medvedenko is a sad clown, as hopelessly in love with Masha as she is with Konstantin. Aaron Cromie plays Arkadina's brother Sorin, full of regrets.
No one is perfect or ideal. Julian's Arkadina seems a discontented character actress, forever chasing leading-lady youthfulness and stardom. Trigorin is often seen as representing Chekhov, whose entertaining short stories launched his writing career, but Swidey makes him a nuanced, tortured, amoral loner, burdened by his fame.
A fluid production
EgoPo's production would be an excellent introduction to Chekhov for the uninitiated, and a refreshing approach for experienced, and perhaps jaded, theatergoers. It's enhanced by Thom Weaver's bold scenic and lighting design -- again, worth the surprise, but "immersive" describes its effect well. It builds on the symbolist nature of Konstantin's play-within-the-play and juxtaposes the cast's genuine acting with non-realistic staging. Rita Squitiere's period costumes are unconstraining, complementing the performances, and Lucas Frendlay's sound effects add subtle depth. Even the changes from one act to the next are accomplished with artful skill.
EgoPo's The Seagull makes me wish that its impressive Russian Masters season -- concluding with Anna, Brenna Geffers's adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, March 29 through April 16, 2017 -- was instead a season devoted to Chekhov. Either way, these plays affirming our connections with Russia's people and art are especially timely as America again wonders if they are a nation of friends or foes.
What, When, Where
The Seagull. By Anton Chekhov; translated by Paul Schmidt; Lane Savadove directed. EgoPo Classic Theater. Through February 19, 2017, at the Latvian Society Theater, 531 N. Seventh Street, Philadelphia. (267) 273-1414 or egopo.org.