It has been 102 years since Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) established his stage credentials when the Moscow Art Theater, under Konstantin Stanislavsky, premiered “The Seagull,” the first of the four plays (including “Uncle Vanya,” “Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard”) that would guarantee the playwright’s immortality. To his dying day, the Russian literary giant insisted his plays were comedies. A century of ponderous, plot-driven productions of his works have tried to prove him wrong. Circus Theatricals’ staging of Chekhov’s final play certainly knows where the laughs are. Using an audience-friendly adaptation by Jean-Claude Van Italie, director Jack Stehlin zeroes in on Chekhov’s angst-driven landowners, merchants and peasants, amplifying their foibles to the hilt. The result occasionally crosses over from character to caricature but never fails to be entertaining.
For the most part, the 12-member ensemble manages to make Chekhov’s frustratingly indecisive characters come across as sympathetic and likable. The action centers on the plight of aristocratic but hapless Madame Lyubov Ranyevskaya (Jill Gascoine), who, after many years living a self-imposed exile in France, has returned to find her cherished Russian country estate on the verge of foreclosure.
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Former peasant turned successful businessman Lopakhin (Alfred Molina) insists the property can be saved, but only by leveling the family’s magnificent cherry orchard and selling off plots of land for summer homes. The idea of cutting the trees is so abhorrent to Lyubov and her woefully inept brother Gayev (Greg Mullavey), they languish, emotionally incapable of doing something to save their home. In fact, no one does anything during the whole play except for Lopakhin, who eventually buys the estate at auction.
Molina (Tony nominee for Broadway’s “Art”) exudes an electrifying inner turmoil as the common, self-made man who worships Lyubov and her family but cannot help but revel in his mastery over them, exalting at rising above his family’s heritage of serfdom. Yet when he has the opportunity, his inbred sense of inadequacy deprives him of a chance at true happiness, rendering him speechless, and unable to propose marriage to Lyubov’s very willing adopted daughter Varya (Stephanie Zimbalist).
Gascoine is convincing as the comically tragic Lyubov, particularly in her revelations about her much put-upon past. Though she knows she is totally responsible for her own failures in life, it is easy to believe she was powerless to prevent any of it.
Zimbalist (“Remington Steele”) impressively communicates the dour, ramrod determination of Varya to keep the household in order despite the chaos whirling about her. She is so deserving of personal happiness it’s painful to witness her emotional collapse when Lopakhin fails them both.
Director Stehlin orchestrates the comings and goings of the rest of the household as so much comic relief. Mullavey (“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”) keeps the emotionally volatile Gayev just a slight step ahead of lunacy. Gigi Birmingham is hilarious as the worldly governess Carlotta, whose in-your-face persona mocks the very people upon whom she is dependent.
Everyone else is caught up in a merry-go-round of pathetic, unrequited desires. Joel Polis is properly dimwitted as the accident-prone town clerk Yepikhodov who yearns for the household maid Dunyasha (Julie Dretzin), who lusts after uncaring valet Yasha (Dean Nichols), whose only desire in life is to stay drunk until he can leave Russia and return to Paris with Lyubov. Meanwhile, aging student Trofimov (Andy Comeau) is so caught up in his ineffectual, pre-Bolshevik rantings he cannot appreciate the adoration being heaped upon him by Lyubov’s youngest daughter Anya (Nickella Dee).
Rounding out the estate menagerie are Jack Kissell’s effectively aged and decrepit servant Firs, and Paul Taylor Robertson’s zesty turn as the impoverished but always jolly landowner Pishchik.
Jaret Sacrey’s undernourished set does nothing to enhance the proceedings, over-relying on photographic projections to create the shifting environments. What does work are the mood-enhancing sounds of Robertson and the period costumes of Jeanine Payton Gilvaher.