Most people don’t associate Chekhov with comedy. We think Russia in all caps, passion with a punch, alcoholics, suicides, depressives. And yes, there’s a lot of that. Except it can all be pretty hysterical stuff, as Theater J’s adaptation of “The Seagull” proves. It’s a thin line between tragedy and comedy, and Chekhov certainly meant us to see the absurdity in our own hyperbolic neuroses. Or put more simply – when a guy presents a dead seagull to his girlfriend, it’s ok to laugh.
Theater J’s mandate is to explore the Jewish cultural heritage and they usually tackle bold new plays. To pull Chekhov into this mandate involved a new translation by Carol Rocamora and an adaptation by Artistic Director Ari Roth that weaves in Jewish cultural references, mostly at the top of the play. If you aren’t familiar with “The Seagull,” these changes will barely register. If you are, they are easily accepted, unless you’re a hardcore Chekhovian scholar. And so we have “The Seagull on 16th Street,” a reference to 16th Street’s Jewish history and a nod to “Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street.”
The core of “The Seagull” is the idea of faith – in oneself, in one’s work and talent – and the terrible capacity to do both good and evil, on a whim. Director John Vreeke delicately pulls this out in a production that makes an excellent introduction to Chekhov. And an ensemble cast of Washingtonian theater regulars is admirably up to the task.
Henpecked by his adoring yet suffocating actress mother, Konstantin is perpetually frustrated in his quest to make art of his own. Misunderstood by all around him, including his vibrant yet vapid girlfriend Nina, his increasingly self-destructive and self-important mania is made palpable by Alexander Strain. Strain really toes the line between tragedy and comedy here in a risky performance matched by that of Naomi Jacobson as his mother. A gifted actress, Arkadina is a complicated person hiding under a shallow and selfish veil. It’s a dream role that Jacobson attacks beautifully.
As her lover Trigorin, Jerry Whiddon chillingly evokes the personality of a writer who only wants what he can use for the page. And my favorite performance was that of the country doctor Dorn, played with a haunting ennui by J. Fred Shiffman. I’ve always wondered if we’re supposed to imagine perhaps that he is Konstantin’s actual father, and I saw little hints of that possibility here, with Jacobson and Shiffman teasing out a past only casually mentioned.
Quibbles? Well, it drags in the second half, but that could be because its depressiveness is so hard to take after the comedic punches of the first half. I wasn’t particularly taken by Veronica del Cerro’s Nina, which didn’t quite make the switch from earthy vibrancy to broken fragility. But it is one of the hardest roles in the canon. And the snatches of R.E.M. songs just didn’t do it for me. Again, these are minor issues with what is overall a fine production at a theater company that consistently delivers. It’s a bittersweet night out.
Now thru July 19
Theater J at the DCJCC
1529 16th Street NW
Washington, DC 20036