Saturday, January 13, 2024

"The Seagull" at Theatre in the Round

The Seagull may be the most tragic comedy I've ever seen. As it happens, this Chekhovian mix that makes you laugh as much as it makes you cry is my favorite thing (see also: The Bear). This slice of life story of a group of family and friends at a country home by the lake one summer, with a flash forward to catch up with them two years later, is full of laughter, music, love, heartbreak, and tragedy. Just like life. #TCTheater artist Craig Johnson has written a new adaptation of Chekhov's first play, and although I can't really speak to what's new or different about this adaptation since I've only seen it once before, it feels fresh and funny and modern, and heart-wrenching. An across-the-board strong 10-person cast and a charming nature-based design bring this 125+ year old story to such vivid life that it was jarring to leave the theater and walk out into the bitterly cold night. Experience this great tragicomedy now through February 4 at Theatre in the Round, the oldest theater in Minneapolis.

The play centers around the famous actress Irina Arkadina, who has come home to the country lake home with her new young boyfriend Boris Trigorin in tow. There we meet her ailing sister Petra (changed from a brother in the original), the caretakers and their daughter Masha, and various other friends and neighbors. Irina's son Konstantin also lives there, an author and playwright who is desperate to impress his mother and earn her love (their relationship is complicated). Konstantin is in love with a neighbor named Nina, an aspiring actress, who becomes enamored of Trigorin and follows him back to Moscow to become a star. It doesn't go well for her, or for the people they left behind, as we find out when we check in on them two years later. There is much discussion of art and beauty and life, as these flawed humans try to make their way in the world.

photo by Aaron Thuen
Craig Johnson also directs his script, and imbues the storytelling with lightness and humor to balance out the tragic feeling of the characters and relationships. He's cast a fantastic group of actors, several of them recent graduates from the U of M. There's really not a weak link in this cast, and all of the characters feel like fully formed humans. Highlights include Berto Borroto, conveying a wide range of emotions as the impetuous Konstantin; Colleen Hennen as the self-centered actress; Kaleb Baker as the charming but thoughtless Trigorin; an effervescent Amy Eckberg as Nina; and assistant director Rebecca Wickert, stepping into the cast with just a few days' notice, fitting in seamlessly and embodying the morose unlucky-in-love Masha (with great supporting turns by David Coral, Courtney Peterson, Jim Ramlet, Matt Wall, and Laura Wiebers).

Amy Eckberg as Nina (photo by Anya Magnuson)
It may be bitterly cold winter outside, but inside the theater it feels like being in a birch forest by the lake. All of the poles in the theater have been covered with birch bark, with what feels like dozens more tree trunks added all around the space. Even the floor has been painted to look like birch bark. Period furniture, including wicker chairs, creates several different sitting spaces, with a few steps up to the glass doors that lead outside. The lighting is warm and natural, and the sound design includes nature sounds, an arriving carriage, and music. The detailed period props are impressive, especially a gorgeous and elaborate piece that seems to be some kind of coffee or tea pot, with characters pouring themselves a cup. Period costumes include full flowing skirts for the women and neat suits for the men. (Set design by Michael Hoover, prop design by Kris Schmidt, lighting design by Andrew Vance, sound design/composition by Dietrich Poppen, and costume design by Claire Looker.)

This is the second Chekhov(ish) play I've seen this season, after Girl Friday Productions and Open Eye Theatre's Life Sucks, a loose retelling of Uncle Vanya. I can only hope the trend continues with #TCTheater productions of The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. In the meantime, don't miss this lovely new production of a theater classic, that feels modern and relevant with its themes of difficult family relationships, unrequited love, mental health challenges, and artistic aspirations.