Avant-garde director takes wing with 'Seagull'

Theater

November 12, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The very idea of a literary classic at the avant-garde Theatre Project sounds like an oxymoron. After all, when was the last time this theater presented a nearly three-hour, language-based work with two -- count 'em, two -- intermissions?

But that's exactly what's there now, in the form of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull." Well, not exactly.

This particular "Seagull" is produced by a young New Mexico troupe called the Riverside Repertory Company and directed by an avant-garde director, Leonardo Shapiro. His history with the Theatre Project dates to the early 1970s and includes his stunning play about Vincent van Gogh in the 1986 Theatre of Nations festival, "The Yellow House."

Nor is it difficult to figure out "The Seagull's" appeal for this often controversial and experimental director, whose career is nearing its end as he battles life-threatening bladder cancer.

Despite its venerable age -- it turned 100 last month -- "The Seagull" tackles many of the themes Shapiro has explored in his other work: the nature of art, the life of the artist, the death of children, and, something that has plagued Shapiro himself -- the misunderstanding of theater that is new, different and political.

That said, it also should be acknowledged that this production -- which is launching an East Coast tour and uses a translation by Jean-Claude Van Itallie -- is surprisingly loyal. While it won't take your breath away the way "The Yellow House" did, it contains a lot to admire.

Among these admirable elements are the simple but striking images evoked by Shapiro, who also designed the mostly white sets, and Kendra Claus, who designed the costumes. For instance, in the first act, when the aspiring young actress, Nina, performs the play written for her by Kostya Treplyev, the struggling writer who loves her, she fills the small stage-within-the-stage with an immense, gauzy white garment that covers everything but her winsome face.

In the last act, when Nina briefly returns with her heart and career in shambles, she stands in a doorway located where the small stage had been, but now she's almost hidden by a voluminous, hooded black cape, which, together with her pale face and dark-circled eyes, make her resemble a specter.

Kerry Weddle's Nina is one of the production's highlights. Her youth and freshness make it easy to understand Nina's initial starry-eyed infatuation with fame, and especially with the famous folks she meets through Kostya -- his star actress mother, Irina Arkadina, and her celebrity novelist lover, Trigorin.

The harsh transformation Nina undergoes is paralleled by that of Kostya, though his extreme sensitivity leads to more dire consequences. Joe Pesce ably conveys Kostya's unbridled enthusiasm at the start of the play, but the depth of his subsequent despair feels less fully realized.

As Irina, Rosalie Triana is appropriately shallow and vain (she's applying make-up during much of her most heated argument with her son), and she's well-matched with Richard Van Schouwen's self-absorbed Trigorin.

The production doesn't use the type of environmental staging often favored by Shapiro, but the director draws the audience into the work by the occasional use of direct audience address, by having the actors enter and exit through the audience, and by setting the stage so we become part of the audience for the play-within-a-play.

The result is a "Seagull" with definite Shapiro touches (including the type of ensemble work derived from an extended rehearsal period -- six months). At the same time, it reflects the director's respect for a play whose influential, ground-breaking debut led the legendary Moscow Art Theatre to adopt a seagull as its permanent logo.

Granted, the production may seem uncharacteristically conventional for both Shapiro and the Theatre Project, but what "The Seagull" has to say about the struggles of the serious artist makes it a logical swan song for this long-embattled director.

'The Seagull'

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; through Nov. 17

Tickets: $14

Call: (410) 752-8558

Pub Date: 11/12/96

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