the seagull poster

Classy, subtle typeface, for a classy subtle play

This past weekend, the Barnard Theatre Department put on a production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull in Minor Latham Playhouse. Bwog’s in-house theater critic discusses the success of subtlety in the show. 

Theater shouldn’t come in screaming its intention, tearing off its clothes to reveal itself. It also can’t try for complete obscurity, babble incoherently, and giggle at the confusion of the audience. Good theater has subtlety; it finds a way to communicate its meaning without giving it away. Saturday afternoon, at the Minor Latham Playhouse, this balance between clarity and eloquence was both alluded to on stage and expertly showcased. A nuanced interpretation of a classic play, the Barnard Theatre Department’s production of The Seagull was proof of the importance of subtlety.

This is no small accomplishment. After a catastrophic opening night in 1896 and what can be considered only a moderately successful first run, it took a revival under the direction of revered Russian dramatist Constantin Stanislavski, for The Seagull to find real appreciation from critics and the public. The plot, a work of great subtlety itself, is at once a story of love and loss in the Russian countryside and a discussion on the nature of art. Exploring realism, symbolism, youthful ambitions juxtaposed with the regret of old age, the middlebrow and the high, and the various forms meaning can take, it is a play that, in the wrong hands, could easily collapse under the weight of its own ideas.

Director David Paul, together with student Assistant Director Cristina Angeles (BC ‘16), first avoided this through the use of tableau. A famous actress stands at the center of the stage with friends and family fanning out around her, the center of focus no matter who is speaking; the girl who now only dreams of being an actress stands off to the side, breaking this formation and drawing attention from the actress to herself. The relationship between the two is expressed even without explicit acknowledgement. Characters positioned behind a scrim upstage contribute to a show-within-a-show motif and comment on the main action, either in their implied observation, or as a reminder of their relevance to the scene at hand. The directing team also made great use of small moments: an old man reaches down to retrieve a flower taken from him and torn apart; a room grows awkwardly silent in anticipation of a crude story. In moments like these, and in the tableaus, the direction highlights the complex themes of the play without the need for caricature or melodramatic reading.

This direction was anchored by uniformly excellent performances. Hari Nef (CC ’15), as the aging actress Arkadina, captivated the audience as well as her character captivated nearly all the others, clearly translating complexity that might have otherwise been easily missed. Maria Diez (CC ‘15), as Nina, Arkadina’s young professional and romantic rival, was more quietly intriguing, her characterization powerful and irresistible and yet vulnerable and lost. In their portrayal of romantics consigned to unromantic lives, Philip Anastassiou (CC ‘18) and Regina Coyle (BC ‘17), respectively as Sorin and Masha, captured something honest and tragic.

Technical elements continued the show’s main strength of subtlety. Lighting design, overseen by Cecilia Durbin, gently shifted in brightness to show the intensity of a moment and to reveal a character’s feelings to the audience. A particularly impressive effect was the combination of a backlit lake set piece and its continuation along the scrim, brought up in key monologues to expand sense of scope. Sound design, overseen by Bart Fasbender, created an immersive world while accomplishing the feat of going completely unnoticed; only felt, not recognized. Even scene transitions were handled with grace, actors staying on stage and reacting to the movement of elements of designer Sandra Goldmark’s elegant and minimal set, suggesting the passage of time.

The production was not without its flaws. When considered after the fact, the frequency of emotional outbursts seems to contradict the realism, for the most part, maintained so well. When actors broke from their tableaus, they sometimes felt stiff, more dramatic movement performed in Acting I than action borrowed from life. That said, no emotional high or low felt unearned in context, and as for the quality of the pacing, it hardly detracted from the overall quality of the show.

These issues can essentially be ignored because they are so slight in comparison to the problems the show avoided. A careful arrangement of sophisticated ideas, The Seagull can easily be rendered incomprehensible, reduced to the appearance of pretension if just one of these ideas is overstated or misinterpreted. To ignore its complexity, however, is to strip The Seagull of its value. In order to be successful, a production must acknowledge the ideas and find clever ways of highlighting them, without overwhelming the audience.

With masterful direction, performances, and tech, this production found the subtlety in a formidable script and brought it alive with subtlety of their own.

Photo via Theatre Department of Barnard