One of the first signs of a great play is that you don’t know you’re watching it.
Let me explain that a little better. It’s the same as watching a great movie or reading a great novel. Time flies—and stops—simultaneously. There is nothing except that story and those characters. Coming out of a play like Theatre Erindale’s production of The Seagull is like waking from a dream that is half nightmare and half paradise.
I will tell you something: I don’t cry at the theatre. I’ve come close—but The Seagull had me the closest to tears I’ve been in a very long time. The crazy part is that I was laughing at the same time. It was funny. It was funny because it’s such an unbearably, almost embarrassingly human play.
If there is one thing Anton Chekhov is good at, it’s writing characters, a fact that has not slipped director Melee Hutton’s notice. These people are clumsy and sad and happy and in love. They’re also stupid, sassy, and overly dramatic, and I love every single one of them. It’s not easy to sit down and say, “Oh, he’s the villain and she’s the lover and he’s the leading man.” Actual lives are not like that, and neither is Chekhov’s play.
The Seagull is essentially about art and love and the place where the two meet. I’ll give you some warning: it’s a head-on collision for the ages. Arkadina (Kyra Weichert) is an aging actress who was once very famous and is now stuck on her brother Sorin’s (Nathaniel Kinghan) estate with her son Constantin (Isaac Giles). Constantin is trying to be a writer, and the play opens with the first backyard staging of one of his plays. The play stars the beautiful Nina (Tatiana Haas), whom Constantin is in love with. And Nina is in love with him too, until the famous fiction writer Trigorin (Stuart Hefford) catches her eye. This plotline is further complicated by the fact that Masha (Sarah Kern), daughter of the manager of Sorin’s estate (Connor Dutchak) is also in love with Constantin. Masha, in turn, is being chased by the schoolmaster Medvedenko (Nathaniel Voll).
Then, everything falls to pieces. But you’ll be laughing on the floor while it happens.
The aesthetic of The Seagull is startling in itself. The colour scheme is pale and creamy (except for Masha, who wears black because she finds her life depressing). Arkadina appropriately changes her clothes for every scene, wearing dress after dress that just keep getting more sparkly and elaborate. The furniture is also mostly pale, and all of this contrasts nicely with the dark floor of the stage.
In keeping with the rest of Theatre Erindale’s plays this semester, the back wall of the set is used for projections throughout. I was especially fond of the forest and lake in the first act. The green light of the trees reflected on the actors’ faces and clothes, making me think of the colour sunlight has as it comes through the trees.
Despite what you may be thinking up to this point, there is an actual seagull in the play. Constantin shoots it in the first half and leaves it with Nina, who wraps the dead bird in a blanket and tucks it beside the wicker couch she’s sitting on. Then Nina and Trigorin perform an entire scene practically sitting on top of a dead seagull which, when discovered, gets gently passed from one to the other like a baby. This is an important image for later. But in that moment, it’s just another of the strange things that happens sometimes. Also, good on the props department for getting the dead bird neck just right.
It’s difficult to pull individual performers from this show. Although the cast can technically be separated into lead and secondary characters, at its heart The Seagull is an ensemble piece. Each actor has found what makes their character a person, with feelings and history. Haas plays a lovely Nina, clearly marking the downward spiral from aspiring artist to exhausted, grieving actress, and the scene between her and Giles in Act IV is the one that nearly had me crying in my seat.
Voll and Cameron Grant (who plays Dorn, a doctor), though not playing the wordiest of roles nonetheless find depth that often had me straying slightly from the main action to watch their reactions. And Polina (Colette Fitzgerald) speaks her mind quite loudly with only her eyes, using body language and facial expressions as well as the written text.
I appreciate a production that is brave enough to take its time. For instance, there’s a moment after Constantin’s attempted suicide where Arkadina changes his bandage. There is nothing rushed in this action, and the two exchange maybe three lines each throughout. It’s a good point: people in the world do not talk all the time. There are moments of silence.
The Seagull runs until March 20.