Stephen Hollis’ elegant and generally well-acted Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park production is the U.S. premiere of “Notebook,” adapted from Ann Dunnigan’s “Seagull” translation about a year before Williams died. The 14-year delay is due to the machinations of Williams’ notoriously controlling executor, Maria St. Just. Hollis snagged the rights to the unpublished work after St. Just’s death, and Lynn Redgrave (who had turned down previous offers to play Arkadina) jumped at the chance to originate a new Tennessee-style grand dame.
Williams was not so radical as to move the play to New Orleans: The action still takes place in turn-of-the-century Russia, the characters have their original names and the basic plot is preserved. But as the evening progresses, it becomes clear that this is not your father’s Chekhov.
The most remarkable infusion of the Williams sensibility occurs with the character of Trigorin (well played here by Jeff Woodman). In Williams’ adaptation, Trigorin is a youthful 37 and explicitly bisexual. His preference for attractive men provokes a frothy confrontation with Arkadina, during which Trigorin’s traveling companion brandishes a postcard photo of an attractive Sicilian.
Given that Trigorin ultimately impregnates the hapless Nina, Williams had to work hard to make his take on Trigorin fit the plot. Even if the initially sympathetic Trigorin comes off as a sleaze by the end, the sexual references have the interesting effect of extending Chekhov’s cerebral musings on unrequited love into an earthy sexual arena.
There are other significant changes. Williams’ snappier, funnier dialogue is peppered with one-liners, and there are a variety of other theatrical flourishes. In this version, Dr. Dorn (Philip Pleasants) becomes a very nasty fellow, and Chekhov’s philosophical musings are greatly reduced throughout the play. Nina’s child does not die, but rather is adopted by Americans.
And compared with the original text, the overall action appears far more Oedipal. A blend of Amanda Wingfield and Blanche DuBois, Arkadina clearly brings about the play’s tragic ending in which the fading actress goes completely nuts.
The textual meld of the two playwrights’ styles is sometimes uneasy, a problem that’s reflected in the production. The extravagant Redgrave, for example, performs her role in a broad (and period) theatrical style, while Timothy Altmeyer’s awkward Constantine is contemporary, self-reflexive and understated.
Woodman and Pleasants are the most successful at the necessary straddling of the two playwrights’ worlds, perhaps taking their cues from Ming Cho Lee’s beautifully ambivalent set, a black-and-white rendering of trees made colorful by Brian Nason’s lighting design. Candice Donnelly’s costumes provide the final touch Chekhovian with a hint of the Williams languor. And there’s a lot more male skin that one typically finds in “The Seagull.”