- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

It seems rather cavalier to use the word “lively” to describe a play that contains, among other things, suicide, the sick and dying, exploitation of innocence and a vaguely incestuous relationship between mother and son.

Yet playwright Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” is just that: spirited, direct and a tragicomedy in the ripest sense of the word. The Rep Stage’s production, under the direction of Kasi Campbell, takes full advantage of the liveliness with an assured, masterful cast and staging that is moody without melancholy.

Sometimes, productions of Chekhov’s works can be code words for dreary. It’s as though American directors don’t know how to approach the Russian playwright. They know his plays are important with a capital I and that they are supposed to be funny as well as tragic. Most productions unfortunately emphasize the more lugubrious aspects.

By contrast, Rep Stage — whether because of the breezy influence of Mr. Stoppard or simply because this strong cast clicks on all levels — has given us a spellbinding “Seagull” that invites us to ponder the nature of love in all its permutations.

Written in 1896, “The Seagull” takes place on a country estate outside Moscow owned by the vain and controlling Irina Arkadina (Helen Hedman), an actress of the floridly emoting Eleanora Duse school who lets this melodramatic bent spill into her private life.

She has a younger lover, Trigorin (Nigel Reed), a writer who, much like Chekhov, uses his friends and family as fodder for his stories. She also has a depressed, distraught son, Konstantin (Karl Miller), as introspective and stuck as Hamlet.

At the time of “The Seagull,” the serfs have been freed (although many of the old servants are unwilling or unable to imagine life without the upper class), the splendid life of the gentry is rapidly disappearing, and the intelligentsia are pushing the value of work and modernism.

However, it is business as usual at Arkadina’s house—summer days lazing in hammocks by the lake, fishing, reading French books and hours of languid chatter.

The bucolic life of the idle rich is evoked by Dan Covey’s evocative lighting and Tony Cisek’s set, which features handsome drawing rooms that seem to almost dance against a shimmering lake, a rich and dark wood and a looming moon.

As in “Hamlet,” a work by which Chekhov was greatly influenced, a play-within-a-play changes the course of events. Konstantin stages a severe symbolist drama, performed by his love, Nina (Megan Anderson), a pointed condemnation of everything his mother has ever believed in and accomplished. Her scathing reaction to the drama is just one catalyst.

The play also triggers a powerful attraction between the young, impressionable Nina and Trigorin, an attraction that impacts everyone at the estate and beyond. The action in “The Seagull” ends two years later, when not even Arkadina can pretend the old world is still fixed firmly in place.

To make “The Seagull” seem more like life and less like dust, you need actors who are both delicate and artful. Miss Campbell has this in abundance with her cast, each of whom has jewel-box moments.

The view of love in “The Seagull” is anything but romantic. As with the bird of its title, some see love as something pure and soaring; others view it as vermin with wings.

***

WHAT: “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov

WHERE: Rep Stage, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, Md.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 10.

TICKETS: $14 to $23

PHONE: 410/772-4900

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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