Most of the Chekhov dramas I recall seeing on other stages were what I remember as ‘drawing room’ comedies where aristocratic Russians arrived in their own coaches to doff fur coats and silk wraps to deferential servants and fall into each other arms — their host presiding warmly.
As I sit at my desk, my memory of the Arlekin Player’s guests is altogether different: gone are the furs and silk, the languorous embraces, the sips of champagne. Instead I’m remembering guests who relished undressing and then skinning their opposites while they clinked goblets of each other’s blood, grinning toothily.
Oh, the stage directions stipulated a mansion in the countryside and woods surrounding a tranquil lake, but these directions were not interpreted literally. And who amongst those thirsty cannibals spared a glance at the lake, filled with (Ugh!) weak water, let alone wandered its shoreline.
Our own homespun philosopher, Thoreau, could have given them a few tips on how to enjoy the benefits of a lake. Keeping a diary in his hand-built hut beside Walden Pond, Thoreau was a fountain of epigrams.
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.”
And then, a well-phrased warning: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Was there even a library in Sorin’s estate, where his guests could have cultivated the confidence to “endeavor,” “advance” and “imagine?”
Instead they chose, or fell into, the polar opposite: a “quiet desperation” with sad toasts of ‘blood.’
Take the circle of guests who coalesce, like volatile chemicals eager to combine, around the famous writer Boris Trigorin (performed by Nael Nacer).
Nina (played by Irina Bordian) has looks, youth, vigorous health, but the soul of a groupie, a stage-door hanger-on, who dreams only of being a middle-aged writer with a halo of fame.
Could Nina, dancing in the fog of her hero-worship, even pause to discern her own imagined dreams, or spare the energy needed to “advance confidently” in their direction, as Thoreau counsels? Oh, for a dash of wisdom for Nina!
Young Konstantin Treplev (played by Eliott Purcell) binds with Trigorin, equally energetically, equally unhealthily. Konstantin’s bond is envy, a double dose of envy: Konstantin envies Trigorin’s success as a writer, and as the love interest of his mother, a famous actress.
Konstantin, rants against the snobbery of his mother’s friends, who, he is sure, look down on him and tolerate him only as one of the family. There are hints in the play, that he and his mother tolerate each other only on the unhealthy basis of a doting mother with a dependent child. As people, they have little to say to each other.
And that’s not all! Konstantin’s mother Irina seems to envy her young adult/child’s ability to dote on her, so she dotes on her lover Trigorin, again, with unhealthy dependence. Trigorin asks Irina to “set me free” so he can dote on the immature, hero-worshipping Nina, who dotes on him.
Meanwhile, as if to inspire his guests, Pyotr Sorin (Dev Luthra) constantly circles in his wheelchair eloquently regretting his failed dreams of being a writer and/or a speaker — neither of which he has achieved.
Actually, to my ear, Sorin spoke quite eloquently of his regrets. And he seemed, to boot, to be blessed with a resilient personality, since I noticed distinct notes of jollity swimming below, underpinning his stream of complaints.
Perhaps, since ‘misery loves company,’ as the saying goes, Sorin might well be the lightest spirit there, having drawn up a guest list of possibly the most miserable characters in Moscow.
But isn’t this parade of misery grim stuff for a drama?
For one thing, Thoreau tells us that “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” If that’s true, and most of us know better how not to be happy, or, at least, fulfilled, then these characters, all supremely desperate, mired in misery, could be object lessons for the rest of us to meditate upon, to introspect and perhaps discern some few, first steps out of the ‘mire.’
And yet, wouldn’t we feel callous learning from such misery and then leaving it to stew in its own soul-destroying juices?
Yes, and no. There seems occasionally some hope for some characters to learn from the so-called “school of hard knocks”. It seems that they are sensible enough to their pain that if their enveloping egotism should ever split a crack, they might momentarily glimpse, at the controls, themselves. Who else but?
Yes, Konstantin does seem bent devotedly on destroying himself with envy and general fecklessness. But occasionally, when alone, he can draw on philosophical distance enough to say to himself: “One should write what one can.” “Can” and “write” are both verbs.
One could imagine Konstantin catching a view of the lake when alone one morning and propelling himself to the shore with a notebook in hand, out of bad company into nature…
And then, there is such an uncomfortable sense of stasis in the evolving entanglements, all wrong-headed, wrong hearted, of the characters on stage, that we, as audience, wonder if they ever need, even long for an intermission from themselves.
And, in fact, they do occasionally seem to sense that feeling that we onlookers do of tying themselves in knots in every bad way as a substitute for meaningful relationships.
And when they feel that way, it seems that the director has encouraged them to run in and out the few doors on stage as if they are seeking a metaphysical exit from their deepening and cheapening entanglements. Also, they seem so well-schooled in this running and jumping and even, sometimes (yes!) swinging from the rafters by their heels that they navigate the small stage and its impediments like a troupe of acrobats who have no concerns about running into each other, as we would have. So, they keep running in shrinking circles as though they are closing in on an incorporeal ‘body’ they would like to become closer acquainted with, but is, or has been, supremely elusive. Themselves, maybe?
They seem to do their best thinking, in fact, with their feet, when they shake the concrete from them — as if they have read Thoreau’s “Walden” and put their ear to his eloquent, self-burnishing rambles.
Another comic factor that keeps them on their feet is that they will never get a horse from the estate manager, Shamraev. Shamraev is a rascal who delights in shaking his head to all requests and explaining just what part of the distant fields the horses are working in.
Working is a favorite word Shamraev delights in using when saying “No!” to these poseurs, obsessives and wanna-be’s.
Is Shamraev a self-chosen representative of the working classes who are becoming just as dislocated in this tumultuous era as the upper classes?
But the working classes are working — and maybe working off some of the frustrations bedeviling the non-working classes?
Or maybe Shamraev is just Shamraev and not a philosopher or a therapist looking for likely clients.
In the same years that Chekov was writing this, the first of his famous plays, Edvard Munch painted the iconic “The Scream.” Just the picture of a man turning to face the viewer on a bridge, a man alone, even with the people of a thin crowd behind him. Alone, he puts both hands to his cheeks and distorts his mouth in a scream — a scream with a resonance we still hear from that framed canvas.
And hear from the stage of the Arlekin Players’ in Needham playing The Seagull, with deft acting, staging and direction — all of a piece.
(The Arlekin Players presentation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” continues through December 8, 2019, at Arlekin Players Theatre, 368 Hillside Ave., Needham, Massachusetts. For more information, call (617) 942-0022 or visit arlekinplayers.com).