From Russia with ill-fated love

Comrades, we've good news coming out of the state education sector this week. For the past nine years, the rupturing of higher-learning institutions has progressed with budget cuts, tuition hikes and the elimination of programs such as the Michigan Promise Scholarship. 

During this time, Wayne State University's Department of Theatre instituted, and kept alive, a world-class study-abroad course with its Month in Moscow program. Active graduate and undergraduate theater students from WSU and other accredited universities, along with working stage pros and theater teachers, travel to the Moscow Art Theater School and study the Stanislavski and Michael Chekhov acting techniques, theater design and management. Not counting the 10th semester this June, the program's seen more than 250 participants from 15 colleges and universities. Nastrovia! 

I dig Russia, there's something familiar about the cold and unforgiving terrain, the 'tude and borscht — and who can deny its incredible art, lit, architecture? Russian ballet and theater soothes souls too; Nikolay Gogol's play The Inspector General, in particular.  

This past week, however, it wasn't Gogol but Anton Chekhov whose work has been interpreted on stage at the Hilberry Theater. Wayne State theater co-eds, many of whom studied in Moscow this summer, presented the first showing of The Seagull, the first of his four distinguished plays. 

The Seagull abounds with interior monologues and we eavesdrop on the flow of thoughts as they enter the character's mind, allowing us intimate access to the unspoken. It's also a beguiling romantic comedy that attempts to deal with the perceived and inherent value of commercial and abstract art. So, yeah, it's a highbrow rom-com, a dramedy. Chekhov, after all, helped create the modern mold for the genre.

The ambitious playwright, you'll note, could pen a short story or two and, along with Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, contributed to early stream-of-consciousness texts. How ahead of his time! 

Billy Mernit, author of Writing the Romantic Comedy writes that "Chekhov pretty much mapped out the turf of what we now call dramedy," a drama-comedy hybrid in which "conflicts both serious and comical get equal weight and explication." As Mernit notes, the audience "won't get what they want out of his characters. They fall in love with the wrong people, or they love the right people in the wrong way. When it comes to romance, Chekhov's characters are far more likely to end up unfulfilled than happy." 

Knowing this going in, you've got to see for yourself how the story and characters unravel. On to the play … 

Set on the countryside estate of Pyotor Sorin (a winning government attorney turned ailing and judicious aristocrat), the play follows Sorin's compromising situations, and also the more amusing and disturbing ones of his family and guests. Our characters have convened at Sorin's lakeside mansion in late summer for an extended vacation, as most all enjoy lives of leisure. It's a bourgeois-meets-boho kind of crowd, a dysfunctional, depressed, hopeless and horny set of actresses, writers, workers and nobles trying to make sense of their lives. We watch as they vie for each other's love and lust, all the while contemplating (as they are) our appropriations of love and art. 

You've heard of love triangles, but what about a love rhombus with more than one incestuous turn?

There's even a play within the play we must consider. Chekhov pokes fun at melodramatic tripe — many character's have some sort of "If you only knew how I felt" moment of wallow and despair — but he follows it up with affective nods to symbolist lit, keeping the audience from getting too caught up with the play's tetchy comedic characters. 

Here's the quick gist: Sorin shares his estate with his steward, the militant Ilya Shamraev, his simple wife Polina and their drug-addled, boozehound daughter Masha. Masha eventually settles for marrying Symon the passive schoolteacher, even though she has a thing for our lead character, the neurotic and depressed Konstantin. He's a symbolist playwright with an Oedipus complex for his mom-actress, Irina Arkadina, an ego-driven attention whore with no motherly skills. She's involved with populist novelist Boris Trigorin, a smart, generally nice guy. 

But Konstantin sees Trigorin as his perfect rival, and not just because Trigorin's in the sheets with Mom, or that his muse, aspiring actress and neighbor Nina, wants to drink Trigorin's bathwater.  

No, Konstantin thinks his own writing, which hinges on original and surreal forms, is diametrically opposed to his foe's internationally received novels. 

The one neutral here is a doctor who sees the worth of both writers. He's also privy to all the mental and physical ailments that trouble most in the group. Lastly, there's a trio of servants who represent a decent dose of restrained proletariat discontent. 

So, does all of that come across on Hilberry's stage? It does, but given the script's efficacy and wit — hell, its very history — we don't get the play's full potential. And that's not to say the play won't entirely succeed when it closes in February. 

There were glaring infractions. An actor mustn't draw attention to a minor stage malfunction, much less physically tend to it, as it jolts us from our imaginations. Sadly, an actress — the same who's unnatural performance marred Polina's character — did just that. There were also seniors in the audience and herbal cigarettes onstage summoned choruses of coughs anytime they were smoked longer than a minute or two. Weak voice projection plagued crucial moments of the first and last acts. Who could blame the elderly woman behind me requesting her friend to repeat the lines? 

Though it wasn't the most consistent, Jason Crabel's Konstanin engaged, and he played him like a morose Alvy Singer. Both Crabel and Brian P. Sage — who put in a more than capable performance as Doctor Dorn — occasionally overact. In a play populated with such obtuse, complex characters, fine lines are toed, and Crabel's character is 25 but was sometimes played like an ADHD 6-year-old, in a cute, Jason Schwartzman sort of way. 

Performances by Alan Ball (Sorin), Dave Toomey (Trigorin), and the memorable portrayal of Irina Arkadina by Samantha L. Rosentrater, helped make The Seagull sing.   

Charlotte Phillips showed promise as Nina while Christina Flynn, as the stoned and lovelorn goth-vixen Masha, was spot on.  

One Seagull theme says that a successful abstract interpretation is reliant on a clear idea, and that idea needs to be a serious matter to the artist, even if it's comedy. Wayne State's production is reliant on a clear idea: a script and a director. But in an ensemble cast, when some actors blatantly fall short of the earnestness their peers are bringing to every scene and to every action, the play as a whole can fall short. It's all about trust and chemistry. The Seagull ought to be much better by January, and worth another visit.

The Seagull runs thru Feb. 11, 2010, at the Hilberry Theater, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. For show times and tickets 313-577-2972 or

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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