Staff Writer Victoria Borlando attended the Thursday night premiere of Columbia University Players’ modern adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull in the Lerner Black Box Theatre. It was an emotional rendition of this classic play, but it struggled with its production. Here are Victoria’s thoughts.
Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull is an extremely difficult play to execute well. With a strong emphasis on subtext, subtle and explicit revelations of themes, and poetic language (a necessity for 19th-century Russian literature), everything in the play must be finely tuned to convey the hard-hitting messages of Chekhov. So, naturally, I was intrigued to go to this show to see a unique perspective on a classic hit.
CU Players took on the challenge and decided to change some parts of the classic story. Unfortunately, their production missed a few core elements of The Seagull, falling short in its own potential.
The opening of the show was very promising. Medvedenko’s (Michael Van Duinen CC ‘21) interaction with Masha (Julia Marino CC ‘22) adequately conveyed both the theme of isolation and the importance of character subtext. In this gut-punching first scene, already establishing everyone’s dissatisfaction with their lives, I was intrigued by Medvedenko’s ability to make the whole audience feel his unrequited love and internal sorrow. And, though hiding behind his chipper attitude for the whole performance, he let the audience know that he was aware that none of the other characters wanted his presence. Duinen’s Medvedenko was definitely a strong point of this rendition of The Seagull.
Nina’s (Chloë Roe BC ‘22) acting during the play scene was also an enjoyable part of the show. She knew how to throw her body around the stage, taking up the whole room, as well as how to act over-the-top, which is essential to Nina’s character. Furthermore, with the lighting changes and constant ambient sound of crickets and nature, she stood out even more, giving me chills when she looked directly at the audience and said, “All, all, all do I remember, and every life I live again in my own self.”
However, as the show went on, I could not tell whether or not the disconnect between the characters was intentional. Oddly enough, the most connection I felt between the characters was during moments of loud fighting or other violent scenes. The tender, loving moments between characters—moments where they needed to have chemistry—fell short. This may have been an issue with directing: for most of the play, the characters either had their backs to each other or were standing ten feet apart. So when it came to the moments of love and embracing, it felt a little out of place to see already isolated characters attempt to demonstrate compassion.
Most importantly, however, the attempt to modernize the 19th-century play fell short in its original intention. I thought it would have been really cool to see this story adapted to the 21st century, showing how class struggles, mental health issues, and the creative process affect us today. However, the stylistic choices made to “update” The Seagull left me more confused than thoughtful.
The costumes suited the characters well; angsty Konstantin (Anastasia Hristidis BC ‘22) donned all black, oversized band t-shirts and washed-out jeans to convey his ‘tormented soul.’ Irina (Abigail Duclos BC ‘23) sparkled in her elegant clothes and haircut, demonstrating sophistication and a love for the theatre. However, by only adding a game of Bull, a laptop, and modern clothes, this rendition of The Seagull fell short of really depicting modernity. After all, these were the only noticeable changes to the original script; the text remained in its 19th-century language. In short, this play didn’t commit to the reimagining of a play in the modern era; a costume change and the addition of modern technology still didn’t make me feel like I was definitely in the 21st-century. I was not able to identify the time period in which this story took place.
The original concept of a modernized version of The Seagull was an intriguing idea. I was roped in with the idea to take the story of these poor, 19th-century Russian people and ‘update’ it, reinventing the portrayal of class struggle, depression, and the male gaze for the modern era. By reworking the script, implementing stronger connections to the 21st century, and more practice on those tender scenes, I think this play could have better showcased the themes of isolation and the struggles of the creative process, which were otherwise portrayed very effectively.
The Seagull will be performed again at the Lerner Black Box Theatre at 8:00 PM on Friday, November 22 and Saturday, November 23rd. Tickets are available at the door.
Image via Vivian Mellon Synder