The Style trumps the Method in the Actors’ Gang production of “The Seagull,” and unfortunately trumps the Play as well.
The Style is the Gang’s performance technique, inspired by the work of French director Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil, and a former member of that troupe, Georges Bigot, directs here. The Method was the technique of Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater, which came to fame with its initial staging of this same play. Despite their similarly concise and capitalized monikers, the two approaches are fundamentally at odds: The Method is all about psychological depth of character, the Style is focused on physicality, on the external expressiveness of human behavior.
To this end, the actors bounce around the stage, frequently address the audience directly and exaggerate their gestures and facial expressions. Watching this self-consciously showy show, one is always aware of the performative exercise at work, that the actors are doing all of this a certain way. The best that can be said about this approach to “The Seagull” is that it’s interesting, and that it activates Chekhov’s more philosophical contemplations about the theater that is one subject of his first major play.
On the down side, there’s something cloying about it all, something supercilious, and ultimately, the Style punctuates the characters with such brazen obviousness that the more affecting, more human and, actually, more radical qualities of Chekhov’s piece get buried.
Bigot’s work was put in stark relief on opening night when understudy Melanie Lora went on for Juliet Landau in the role of Nina. Lora took the stage carrying the script (referring to it sparingly and relatively unobtrusively); her simplicity, her effortlessness, served to spotlight everybody else’s overripe characterizations and frenetic laboriousness. Nina is, in fact, supposed to be different than the others — a simple country girl amid pretentious city slickers — and there was something pure in Lora’s look and ease that was just right. In a sense, the only affecting element of this production seems accidental. It’s hard not to think that given a full rehearsal process she would have been exactly that — processed.
What’s strange about the fakeness of all this is that the result is supposed to be the opposite. When an actor does a cartwheel (and something tells me that after Meryl Streep’s recent acrobatics in a New York production of this play, everybody will throw one in), it’s supposed to feel spontaneous, an instant expression of an overflowing emotion. But here, there’s so much of this overenergized movement that it all feels canned and, what’s more, selfish. Everybody here is so busy expressing their characters that nobody bothers to connect — or, in one of those aching Chekhovian moments — fail to connect, with anyone else.
This is still also a story of myriad unrequited loves, and if all the characters do is pontificate without purpose, then Chekhov’s artistry becomes dreadfully reduced. What you get is Arkadina (Cynthia Ettinger, prancing), famous actress, mother to insecure aspiring artist Treplev (Joseph Grimm, shouting) and lover to insecure successful artist Trigorin (Brent Hinkley, smiling), both of whom are in love with aspiring actress Nina, coming off less as a complex being scared to lose her hold on the men in her life than as an early version of Megan Mullaly’s Karen on “Will & Grace.” The humor of this production –and there’s so much in this play — is of the shticky sort rather than the yearning comedy that Chekhov invented.
The production, which marks the return of Tim Robbins as the Gang’s artistic director, is pretty to look at; Richard Hoover’s sleek design is as elegant as the performances are ostentatious. From the start, when a large red curtain pulls back to reveal a smaller red curtain upstage, it’s clear that this is a play about the theater itself. And Bigot achieves a couple of visual images that do carry power, including early on during the play-within-a-play, strikingly lit by David F. Hahn, and at the end of act one, when the play’s voice of compassion, Dorn (Brian Powell, singing), holds Masha (Lolly Ward, scowling) like a baby.
Hoagie K. Hill’s music is also appealing, an intriguing mix of Russian folk music with contemporary sounds. There is, however, too much of it.