When you go to the theater in Russia, one thing you notice is they play Chekhov for comedy. So it shouldn’t be a shock that a production of “The Seagull” helmed by Viacheslav Dolgachev, artistic director of the Moscow New Drama Theater and formerly a director with Moscow Arts Theater, should feel playful, even in its most tragic moments. Which American actors might walk that highwire and not fall, one might wonder. Dianne Wiest, actually, who is pretty damned dazzling as Arkadina, but not alone in an ensemble that seems to understand the capricious Russian soul.
Santo Loquasto’s impressionistic set offers the first hint this will be an unorthodox production. Blending two diverse styles of symbolism often taken with this play — one highlighting the romantic exterior of the family farmhouse on the lake, the other emphasizing its gloomier interior — the designer uses a mirrored floor and an oval framed mirror on the mantelpiece to make them glassy reflections of one another.
More subtly disorienting, he keeps shifting the little outdoor stage where Nina (Kelli Garner) performs Konstantin’s (Ryan O’Nan) experimental play on the night that his mother, Arkadina, and her lover, the author Trigorin (Alan Cumming), arrive from Moscow. Moving this platform turns the stage around visually, forcing a fresh perspective on the scene being played and challenging us to view the characters and their actions from different angles.
In this shifting landscape, first impressions are charming, but not necessarily trustworthy. When first met, Konstantin and Nina are hurling themselves about the stage and at one another like wild children, unable to repress their youthful energy or contain their hunger for life and all it holds. As Dolgachev takes Garner and O’Nan (both appealing young thesps) through the scene, it plays like a boisterous satire on the emotional excesses of impetuous youth.
But by the time the little outdoor stage has revolved back to its original position, bedraggled from time and neglect, both Konstantin and Nina have shown themselves capable of complex feelings and extraordinary deeds.
More than a design trick undertaken with co-conspirators Brian MacDevitt (lighting) and Jorge Muelle (sound), the multiple perspectives offer the performers a way to reveal hidden facets of their characters. That spineless schoolteacher Medvedenko (in a sensitive perf by Greg Keller) could be a total buffoon — or not. And Sorin (the invaluable John Christopher Jones) could be a silly old man with his constant complaints — unless he isn’t. In this show, life and a well-placed mirror have a way of distorting truth.
Wiest blooms in this fluid setting, so well suited to the mercurial Arkadina and her changeable moods. As a leading actress of the Moscow stage, Arkadina is a diva to the core, so narcissistic that Dolgachev’s comedic take on her is entirely justified. But it is also tricky to maintain, once the comedy of manners darkens into tragedy.
Watching this grande dame flaunt about the modest country estate in her fabulous city gowns (exquisitely detailed work by Suzy Benzinger) and ornate hairdos (ditto for Paul Huntley) while refusing to part with a kopek for her impoverished son and sickly brother puts a terrible strain on the audience’s sympathies. And how can we forgive her for her humiliating dismissal of Konstantin’s passionate, if clumsy artistic efforts?
But Wiest is one tough cookie. Rather than soften Arkadina’s cruelty, or sentimentalize her motivating anxieties about professional status and personal relationships, the thesp gives little stage time to her vulnerability. Whenever such feelings do surface — as in the haunting scene when Arkadina changes Konstantin’s bandages after his suicide attempt — they are raw and fierce. But Wiest’s proud diva beats them back every time, getting right back up on her high horse by denying her anguish and refusing all pity.
Family and friends who orbit the magnetic Arkadina are all put through their respective comic paces before being allowed the touch of compassion that always transforms Chekhov’s characters into people worthy of your tears.
Cumming takes what is probably the bravest comic stand as Trigorin, finding more absurdity than modest genius in the self-absorbed author’s detachment from everything but fishing and Nina’s young charms. But everyone in this household — from Marjan Neshat’s romantically gloomy Masha to David Rasche’s studiously unconcerned Dr. Dorn — is a quivering bundle of poses and affectations. Comic, to be sure, but in the end, poignant and lost without their little stage.