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Birds of play

for The Brooklyn Paper

It was with trepidation that I confronted “The Seagull” at Brooklyn College in Midwood.

Director Mary Robinson had bravely taken the cavernous space of the Gershwin Theatre and created a theater-within-a-theater on its proscenium stage.

Would Chekhov’s gloom survive in such lovable smallness?

Surprisingly, it did. This intimate performing space gave a warm ambience and soul to the beloved classic about love and art and invited the audience to get up-close-and-personal with the actors.

Fortunately, Robinson seems to share the author’s own belief that his play is a human comedy. True, the play is awash with desperation, heartache, unfulfilled dreams, unrequited love, self-absorption and five tons of tears. But Robinson shrewdly takes the self-dramatization of the characters, and then shades their one-on-one confrontations with superb comic highlighting. As a rule, words are not to be taken at face value in this play, and what you hear a character say in Act One may well have a reverse value in Act Four.

Don’t try to follow the plotline too strictly. Chekhov’s plays are notorious for being described as plotless, convoluted or simply dizzying. But mood is the operative word here, and it gradually becomes the essential element of the play.

It helps, of course, to remember that the action takes place at Sorin’s farm, in Russia, in the 1890s, and centers on four theatrical characters — Nina, Arkadina, Konstantin and Treplev — who undergo all sorts of artistic and romantic conflicts. But beyond that broad outline, one should simply tap into the pervading mood of the scene to fully realize Chekhov’s intent.

The staging is unfussy, and the country-style set seems reminiscent of a Bruegel painting. Set designer Lilia Trenkova has effectively fashioned the stage with an imposing wood-framed farmhouse against a backdrop of motley-colored hills and feathery, cumulus clouds. Shifting from the panoramic view to the quieter indoor spaces, I enjoyed the intimate look of an Oriental rug, a plain dining room set, rocking chair and Sorin’s old-fashioned wheelchair in the later scenes. This is simplicity done right, a cozy warmth in a chilled landscape.

This production, by the way, features an ensemble cast of students — and one professor! — from the Drama Department at Brooklyn College. These fresh-faced actors take bold risks and their natural comic energy is the real lifeblood of the production. Obviously, you don’t get the circumspect acting skills of seasoned thespians, but you will see Chekhov alive and well — and laid on with a trowel. There’s no rusting of a classic here.

The acting is mostly good. Casandera Lollar plays Nina Zarechnaya with a delicate sensuality, and Judylee Vivier is a persuasively self-absorbed Arkadina. Roger Manix, as the famous writer Trigorin, grabs attention without forcing his talent; Chekhov has invested Trigorin with delicate sensibilities, and Manix seems quite capable of delivering the deep pathos of his character.

The new translation by Paul Schmidt, however, is like putting old wine into new bottles. Whereas I feel Schmidt’s translation is spot-on in most lines, I think he occasionally loses some of the poetry found in earlier translations. But tomato, to-mah-to. Each new translation can only expand the dramatic reach of this sublime play.

What makes this production touching is that the young actors and audience at Brooklyn College embrace Chekhov so readily. Chekhov gives them breathing space — and elbow room. What could be a fresher way to spend a fall evening?

“The Seagull” will play at 7:30 pm on Nov. 10 and at 2 pm on Nov. 11 at Brooklyn College’s Gershwin Theater (2900 Campus Rd. at Hillel Place in Midwood). Tickets are $12. For information, call (718) 951-4600 or visit www.brooklyn.cuny.edu.

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Reader Feedback

matt from norwood says:
Nice job using "theater" three times in one sentence. I didn't think it was possible. Thanks.
Dec. 30, 2007, 3:27 pm

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