Pictured: seagull. Not pictured: Overwhelming Russian despair

Last night, the new Lenfest Center for the Arts premiered the opening performance of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” directed by Andrei Serban. It was the first performance in the Lenfest Center’s Flexible Performance Space, and the first in this year’s season of Acting Thesis productions. Running in repertory (that is, in alternation) with “The Seagull” is Caryl Churchill’s “Mad Forest,” directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh, School of the Arts ’09. New Bwogger Levi Cohen attended the play and reviews it below. 

“The Seagull” is presented in four acts, with an intermission between the second and third; altogether, you’re looking at committing three hours to this classic Russian drama. Director Andrei Serban says in his program notes that the goal was to “take this so-called realistic play in a totally new direction.” Truer words have rarely been spoken: this production is wildly, often appealingly, performed at an emotional fever pitch.

The play opens with a stormy, high-stakes dialogue between Masha (Ashley Marie Brown) and Medvedenko (Freddie Fulton), and its urgency never decreases from there. Characters fling themselves across Reid Thompson’s minimalist set, proclaiming with equal anguish eternal love and burning hatred. Subtlety is largely left for the birds (the seagulls?), turning an already taxing play into an unbridled storm of feeling. I must emphasize how bewildering the experience was: twice in the play, impassioned dialogues between lovers transform into full-on dance sequences. Paulina’s (Manuela Sosa) flamenco stomping, in particular, was rather unexpected and highly memorable.

Indeed, there are moments of levity in “The Seagull:” part of what made the experience so unique was its constant careening between comedy and despair. Of note in that regard were the performances given by Alinca Hamilton as Sorin and Alexander Stene as Dorn. Hamilton’s ably-employed physical comedy was a constant delight, and Stene’s aloofness was a welcome contrast to the melodrama around him. Samantha Simone’s portrayal of Nina straddled comedy and tragedy, with the former genre containing her stronger moments save a beautiful monologue in the latter half of the play.

Hope Ward’s turn as Konstantin Treplev must be singled out for special praise. It was her performance that sold me on the heightened emotion of the production: she commits fully to the character’s desperation, and at her strongest is almost impossible to look away from. Though Trigorin, here played excellently by Alex Marz, is often cited as Chekhov’s best male role, Ward’s performance makes a strong claim for Treplev to take that title.

The one weaker note in the cast was Matt Consalvo’s turn as Arkadina. This to me was the make-or-break role for the production’s gender-bending concept, and unfortunately it did not quite hit the mark. While Consalvo gave a fine performance, showing flashes of excellence in his more subdued moments, at times his Arkadina amounted to little more than a collection of “man in a dress” stereotypes, complete with falsetto, bared legs, and a slightly askew wig. The character is one in the tragicomic mold, emphasis on “comic,” but in this production went very broad for laughs that were not always earned.

Late in the play, one character is described as “a nerve stretched to a breaking point.” The phrase could be a thesis statement for “The Seagull”; great stamina is required both of the actors and the audience to barrel through to the end. Overall, “The Seagull” was a theatrical experience I’m not likely to forget—I walked out of the Lenfest Center strangely satisfied, my own emotions purged by the maelstrom I had witnessed onstage.

This play is for you if: you need some mid-midterm catharsis; you want to wring yourself emotionally dry; you want to support an incredibly talented class of MFA candidates

This play is not for you if: you don’t like yelling; you like to leave theatres with a spring in your step

“The Seagull” is playing on October 13th, 14th, 19th, and 21st at the Lenfest Center for the Arts’ Flexible Performance Space, 615 West 129th Street (just west of Broadway). All performances are at 8 pm except for the 14th (2 pm). Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online here or in person at the box office.

Super symbolic bird via Public Domain Pictures