The Seagull soars and swoops on winds of unrequited love
BEFORE Masha even reaches the stage at the outset of The Seagull she explains her fondness for wearing black. “I’m mourning my life,” she says. “I’m unhappy.” And on that uplifting note, ChekhovFest 2014 is off and glumming. The Seagull is Anton Chekhov’s earliest major play, and it landed at the RMTC Warehouse Thursday with all the melancholy and heartache of the original still intact. Masha is the first, and by far not the last, inhabitant of a Russian country estate whose spirit is being crushed by thwarted passion and unfulfilled desire. The debate over whether The Seagull is a comedy, like the playwright claimed, or a tragedy as Konstantin Stanislavsky, Chekhov’s pioneering director, loudly proclaimed rages on. Director Krista Jackson offers a well-balanced production brimming with deep, painful hilarity. The depth of the joy and sorrow of these characters becomes so absurd as to become laughable. Masha is miserable because she carries a torch for budding playwright Constantine, who has a thing for neighbour Nina, an aspiring actress attracted to the famous novelist Trigorin, who is carrying on with Constantine’s stage-diva mother Irina, but also has the hots for Nina. Everyone’s in love with someone who doesn’t return their love. Chekhov’s mashup up of funny and sad is beautifully captured in a scene where the estate manager’s married wife Polina, played with a hair-trigger intensity by Terri Cherniack, is having an affair with dapper Doctor Dorn. She loves his bedside manner and wants to move in with him, but he’s not many of the 13-member cast, who get to blurt out their torments found in David French’s translation that enlivens the dialogue for a contemporary audience. Dorn has a few lines that could have come out of the mouth of Basil Fawlty, and estate owner Sorin starts whistling uncomfortably when his sister Irina tells him bold-faced lies about her finances. Jackson draws strong performances from her two imported leads and many hometown actors. Bethany Jillard ( Gone With the Wind) finely draws Nina’s journey from fame-hungry optimism to bruised realism. A highlight is her hero-worshipping lakeside scene with the world-weary Trigorin, but their misreadings of each other spark a doomed romance. In his low-key RMTC debut, Tom Rooney’s Trigorin reveals how a reticent man is transformed by an adoring public. Ross McMillan stands out as self-satisfied Dorn, the doctor who dispenses compassion and cruelty. Sharon Bajer conveys all the vanity, parsimony and melodrama of an aging performer who senses her best years are behind her. Bajer succeeds in making us wonder at times if Irina is playing a role or just being herself. Harry Nelken gives us a sympathetic Sorin, who wanted to live in town and get married, but ends up a bachelor in the country. Tracy Penner is a delight in how she vividly sells the tragedy of the comically self-absorbed. Tom Keenan is a believable Constantine, headstrong and immature, but passionate about Nina and the need for a new theatre form. The pathetic way he shows Nina the seagull he has shot is reminiscent of a dog bringing home a squirrel it killed. Ultimately, in The Seagull, tragedy takes hold in the darker final act where moments of tenderness give way to the results of brutal unkindness that leaves the audience, like Masha, mourning.