Nobody does boredom like Anton Chekhov.
His characters are often bored inside the stories, the plays themselves bore some audiences and my usual TheatreWorks companion told me months ago that he wouldn't attend The Seagull with me because he finds it dreadfully boring.
Artistic director Murray Ross told the Indy as much in his interview here last week, but also said that he considers Chekhov "second only to Shakespeare in terms of playwriting prowess."
So having enjoyed the film version of Chekhov's The Duel late last year (which I reviewed here), and wanting to put Ross' Shakespeare claim to the test, I set off to take in The Seagull on Saturday night.
And guess what?
I was far from bored.
Though I didn't find the show quite as funny as this Denver Post critic, I was certainly amused by much of the sharp dialogue and subtle elements of tragicomedy.
Unrequited love has seldom looked so miserable and spirit-crushing, but at the same time mildly ridiculous. It's as if a teenager's irrational, hormone-driven angst has infected a village, and even the successful people despair over trivial matters.
The basics of the plot: Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplev (a sharp Benjamin Bonefant) desires Nina Mikhailovna Zarechnaya (a perfectly pity-invoking Jamie Ann Romero), but she favors the famous writer Boris Alexeyevich Trigorin (an effective Matthew Mueller), who makes good on destroying her life just as he's said he'll do to a character that she's inspired in one of his short stories.
Semyon Semyonovich Medvedenko (an intentionally droopy Dylan Mosley) gets a sympathy marriage of convenience (or inconvenience) out of a half-drunken Masha (the fine Kate Berry), who really has feelings for Konstantin. Konstantin's contemptible mother, the famous actress Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina (a lively Jane Fromme) openly mocks him while forcing the weak-willed Trigorin (whom Konstantin hates) to stay around as her lover.
It's a triangulated mess with some strong supporting help from Louis Schaefer as the aging Pyotr Nikolayevich Sorin and Tom Paradise as Yevgeny Sergeyevich Dorn, the satisfied doctor who has had plenty of women and who keeps probably the coolest head of the bunch.
At least there is equality to be found amongst the group, which exists on different levels of the social strata. Women wreck men's hearts, men wreck women's hearts and discontent abounds.
Listen closely for an allusion to Leo Tolstoy and the famous opening from Anna Karenina, which reads "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
As for all those difficult to remember and pronounce Russian names, don't worry about keeping characters straight or having to slog through lots of obscure Russian references. TheatreWorks has gone with a modern adaptation by Christopher Hampton that apparently makes the work much more accessible.
Perhaps the older version is the real boring one and this newer take indeed freshens up the material, but not having viewed the earlier version, I just can't say. (Damned if my stubborn friend had only gone with me to weigh in on that.)
I do know that there's plenty of life here — and the abusing and contemplation of it — for a play that strongly drives toward a tragic (or is it comedic?) death.
For first-timers, it's fun to ponder the symbolism of the seagull itself (killed by Konstantin and presented to Nina as a sick trophy, like some kind of raging Napolean Dynamite: "I caught you a delicious bass.")
Sure, you can quickly go online and let someone else tell you what the bird supposedly means, but why not drive home wondering why Chekhov opted to have the bird stuffed for Trigorin, though he can't recall ever asking for such a gift.