Tragedy, a Comedy

For some reason Berkeley’s getting its fill of Anton Chekhov adaptations lately.  Last month Central Works did its own stage version of Chekhov’s novella An Anonymous Story, and Berkeley Rep just announced its next season including the West Coast premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s new Three Sisters translation next spring. Right now Shotgun Players is doing the West Coast premiere of another adaptation of a different classic Chekhov play: Emily Mann’s update of The Seagull called A Seagull in the Hamptons, which debuted in 2008 at McCarter Theatre Center in New Jersey, where Mann is artistic director and has adapted other Chekhov plays in the past.

Kelsey Venter and Alex Moggridge. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Purists may grumble that a good production of Chekhov needs little adaptation, as demonstrated by Cal Shakes’ triumphant Uncle Vanya two years ago, but Shotgun makes a good case for the update in an often sparking, well-performed production staged by company member Reid Davis, whom some might remember as the Porter in Mark Jackson’s Macbeth.

Mann wasn’t the first to transplant this 1896 tragic comedy from late tsarist Russia to the seaside resort on the South Fork of Long Island a century later, but her version was far better received than Jeff Cohen’s The Seagull: The Hamptons: 1990s had been off-Broadway in 1997. Mann’s is a faithful if not terribly subtle update, broadening the humor in a way that works well for the most part.

It’s not strictly necessary to have seen or read The Seagull before to appreciate this production, but it does take a while to glean who’s supposed to be a couple and what some of the characters are doing there at all. Lorenzo (Mark Manske) and his wife Paula (Beth Deitchman), who deliver the cell-phone speech in character before the show, are a case in point. They’re working for the others as caretakers of the property in some capacity or another that may have been much more recognizable to a 19th-century Russian audience than a 21st-century American crowd.

Folks in Berkeley may not necessarily be familiar with the Hamptons either, but they’ll quickly get the gist: the idle rich, or at least idle upper-middle-class, idly summering by the beach. Robert Broadfoot’s sandbox set cleverly transforms from a beach boardwalk to summer house interior, and Victoria Livingston-Hall provides a variety of seasonal wear from shorts and Hawaiian shirts to pretty summer dresses

Teenage tortured artist Alex (a callow Liam Callister) resents his mother, the ever-preening, faded actress Maria (Trish Mulholland, hamming it up delightfully with an affected British accent). He despises her fake and meaningless theater world, and she’s completely dismissive of the overwrought experimental theater he tries to make, accompanied by a crackly boom box.  The belittling battles between the two of them provide the occasion for a lot of rants about theater. “Oh god, how I hate self-important theater,” Maria moans, and Alex rails about trivial naturalistic drama “or those fucking cheerful musicals, oh my god!”

He’s also smitten with aspiring actress Nina (Kelsey Venter, enchanting everyone in effervescent ingénue mode), who likes him too until she decides his work is pretentious and impenetrable. She strikes up a girlish flirtation with Maria’s lover Philip, a famous writer, literally shuffling her feet and generally being adorable at him.

Nerdy Harold (Andy Alabran) is thoroughly into Milly (Anna Ishida)—a severely depressed, black-clad emo girl who’s been hitting the sauce pretty hard—who’s hopelessly devoted to Alex, who thinks she’s a creep and is in love with Nina, who’s crushing hard on Philip.

Alex Moggridge does a fabulous job of embodying the kind of seemingly nice guy who really, really isn’t as Philip (Trigorin in the original), who affects an endearingly self-deprecating just-plain-folk routine that ropes people in, even when he’s telling them outright that he cannibalizes the lives of everyone around him, and that’s putting it mildly. Even so, his long speech about always feeling like he should be writing and feeling like his writing and his life don’t amount to much speak to the heart of nearly any writer who’s ever had moments or more than moments of doubt.

John Mercer hangs around being charming as English doctor Ben, an aging lothario who flirts with all the ladies to little effect and otherwise doesn’t have much to do (except when he’s doing Paula, apparently). Richard Louis James is a posh and dandyish Uncle Nick, a retired lawyer who bemoans his wasted life in such a playful way that it takes a long time to realize he’s serious.

Like the rest of Chekhov’s plays, the author considered it a comedy, and indeed there’s a lot of humor in it, brought out more to 21st-century tastes in the Mann/Shotgun version so that its two and a half hours don’t seem nearly that long. Also like most Chekhov plays, it’s ultimately a depressing one about desperately unhappy people and shattered lives. With that in mind, it’s practically a romp.

A Seagull in the Hamptons
Through April 25
Ashby Stage
1901 Ashby Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Show #37 of 2010, attended March 26.

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