The New Group’s “The Seagull/Woodstock, NY” and Soulpepper’s “The Seagull” Flies Out With Force in Uniquely Different Ways Over a Vastly Different Lake

It must be something in the spring air. Maybe it’s the warming idea about spending time up at a country house by a lake with nothing to do. Some of the characters think this is boring, while others find amusement on the lake forever fishing (that would not be me). But others discover discontent there on the shores of the lake, as we watch them give their love and affection to the wrong artistic soul. And they do the same, as if they can’t see what is happening around them. But more importantly, one person casually shoots a seagull for no apparent reason other than he can. He kills the soaring bird who knows that lake and lives in the joy of flying above it. Another does it to one that loves him.

Something about those sad love pieces of this Chekhovian puzzle inspired two very modern playwrights to take on and tackle this classic, creating two very different renderings of the 1895 play, The Seagull for two different theatre companies in North America. Spinning out their own particular visions, the two writers, I’m sure, hoped with all their might that they too didn’t, in the end, shoot down all the joy of the play like the one character who literally did just that, and the other who did it metaphorically. The first reformed production that I saw at The New Group in New York City, was the one written by Thomas Bradshaw (Intimacy and Burning), a writer described in the program as “one of the most deliberately and effectively confrontational… of his generation” called, most tellingly, The Seagull/Woodstock, NY, while the other, penned by the impeccable and oh-so-talented Simon Stephens (HeisenbergOn the Shore…Wastwater) does its duty with a steadfast too literal take for Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto. And boy, are they different boats to ride around that lake in.

Stepping forward into the moonlight in these two different theatre towns; New York City and Toronto, their unique adaptations based upon Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece, find meaning within the text to different levels of success and pleasure, with Bradshaw’s going for something far more complicated and altered than Stephens somewhat too tight rendition. Bradshaw’s Seagull/Woodstock, with an impeccably confrontational and clever cast of experts, directed loosely and wisely by Scott Elliott (TNG’s Black No More; The True), unpacks the humor and the ridiculousness at every turn, even when the journey isn’t curved. He holds tight to Chekhov’s statement that he had always viewed the play as a comedy, a vision he would maintain towards all his plays. Unfortunately for us and its talented cast, the Soulpepper‘s Seagull, as written by Stephens and directed by Daniel Brooks (Soulpepper’s A Doll’s House; Endgame) doesn’t quite seem to match up and spin forward as well, shifting itself back and forth from modern to problematic period wordings without understanding the disconnect and the distraction it brings.

Parker Posey, Nat Wolff, and Daniel Oreskes in Thomas Bradshaw’s The Seagull/Woodstock, NY. Photo courtesy of Monique Carboni.

It is astounding that Chekhov’s play is still going as strong as it is, being produced regularly after, what many considered, its disastrous 1896 premiere. It is said that on the play’s first opening night, the actress playing Nina was so intimidated by what she perceived as hostility coming from the audience that she lost her voice, and Chekhov, himself, left his seat and spent the last two acts hiding out of sight. When supporters wrote to him that the production later became a hit, he assumed that they were merely trying to be kind, making me wonder what he would think of these two rebootings. Stephens seems to have tied himself tightly to Chekhov’s mast in a way that Bradshaw has not, creating something far more unlikely and playfully demented for The New Group‘s production at Signature Theatre. He, and director Elliott, throws us delightfully into the absurd dramatic waters almost instantly, manifesting an entry that makes us take notice of the artificiality of the play, while also inviting us to take up one of the folding lawn chairs and relax in the night air. This is not to be taken to the hearts and minds as darkly as it may seem. We are here to have fun and laugh at the silliness of the theatricality. Even as the darkness rolls in.

This is “Our House“, they tell us with sing-song voices, and like all good actors warming up, they float out casually, entering the space that is designed a bit too fussily by Derek McLane (Broadway’s Moulin Rouge!), with subtle lighting by Cha See (RTC’s You Will Get Sick). They form a company, as only actors would, stretching and limbering up their instruments to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Some of us are born to suffer we are told, as the set-up for heartbreak and disappointment is assembled with frantic care by the desperate son of a fading actress in the backyard of a country home in Woodstock, NY. And some of us are born to bear witness to that suffering with an indifferent shrug. It’s a clever reformation, giving the young writer, Kevin, played manic and forlorn by Nat Wolff (A24’s “The Kill Team“), plenty to chew on before the young actress, Nina, portrayed glowingly by Aleyse Shannon (Netflix’s “Beauty“) arrives to make her debut in front of the whole cast of characters who are staying or living at the house. Kevin is in love, the head-over-heels kind, that has no logic. Nina, well, I’m not quite sure what she thinks of Kevin, beyond that he is the son of a big-named actress, who she likes, well enough, but not strong enough, to satisfy.

Hari Nef and Patrick Foley in Thomas Bradshaw’s The Seagull/Woodstock, NY. Photo courtesy of Monique Carboni.

The black-clad depressed Sasha, played hilariously dark by Hari Nef (TNG/Vineyard’s Daddy) is a work of art all on its own, delivering forth lines with a wry wit and angle to the perfectly restructured Samuel, played beautifully by David Cale (We’re Only Alive for A Short Amount of Time). He is a much-loved older gay man who is looking back on his underwhelming life with a very telling glimmer of something utterly compelling and sad. Their interactions flicker with connection, similar to the touching engagement Sasha has with the handsome Bill Sage (“Nurse Jackie“) as Doctor Dean. Sasha is dynamically mourning her life before it has even begun. She finalizes her sadness by marrying the poor (in more ways than one) lovestruck Mark, played well by Patrick Foley (Yale Rep’s Indecent), even as she states quite clearly that she is deep in an unrequited love trap with Kevin, who loves Nina, who loves..well, eventually another, who doesn’t exactly love another, but chooses another in the end, casually. As easy as shooting a seagull as it flies across the lake.

But the one we are all waiting for is for Irene, the fading actress and grand dame of the manor, to make her entrance, and as portrayed with full force by the talented Parker Posey (TNG’s HurlyBurly; “Best in Show“), the short wait is worth its weight in satiric gold. Posey, dressed to the meaningful nines by costume designer Qween Jean (TNG’s One In Two), has built a career playing these outlandish women, dripping with highly referential jokes that are both ridiculous and determinately direct. She asks for sympathy, slightly, from us, and while getting it a little here and there, she never lets us look away for too long, nor lets Irene off the narcissistic track. It’s devilishly funny, expensive, and superficial, delivering and getting Bradshaw’s jokes as they get tossed around with an ease that only a New Yorker can. And the rest of the finely tuned cast join her in this realm, bringing clever impolite lines about everything and anything, including a gender-reversed production of True West, La Mama, and P.S. 122 to the forefront, showing disdain for all, and a desperate need for so much. (And if you get these references, this might be the production for you.)

Ato Essandoh and Nat Wolff in Thomas Bradshaw’s The Seagull/Woodstock, NY. Photo courtesy of Monique Carboni.

The jokes and asides ring out much as they should, dismantling theatre like Chekhov’s Konstantin and Bradshaw’s Kevin would as they showcase Shannon’s Nina on that little backyard stage, performing a monologue about saying the N-word and masturbating in the bathtub. Yes, you heard me right. And it’s Irene’s new lover and partner, William, played strong by Ato Essandoh (Williamstown’s Six Degrees of Separation) that gets the peek, and that look of love from Nina post-performance. Not Kevin. Because William, as the celebrated Black novelist who is both published in “The Atlantic” and who Nina adores, is Bradshaw’s Boris Trigorin wrapped up in a more modern approach to literal genius in a world that values something else, where slices of overinflated ego and self-regard can be unpacked inside a racial standpoint.

It’s all very clever, this reformulation, yet sometimes, almost a bit too clever for its own good. We never get too close to these outlandish characters, even when they let us see the more vulnerable parts underneath the flash and folly. They find connection to their upstate roots, discussing electric luxury cars, rather than horses, as they leave this country estate for the big city, which makes a lot of sense (I’m looking at you Stephens as I write this). The Chekhovian tragedy is played out with a steep satirical slant, understanding pain, but keeping it on the lighter posturing side of humanity. And even though the play feels like it runs longer than the updated story needs, it’s clear that much of the action is presented to keep in line with Chekhow’s detailed plot.

David Cale and Parker Posey in Thomas Bradshaw’s The Seagull/Woodstock, NY. Photo courtesy of Monique Carboni.
Paolo Santalucia and Hailey Gillis in Simon Stephens’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull at Soulpepper.

The same can be said of Stephen’s 2017 adaptation currently playing at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre. The Seagull he created never strays far from the original as it unwraps the plot with careful control and a noticeable speed. He holds to the formula, insistently, hardly veering away, making it feel more like a retelling than a newly formed adaptation. I must admit, it’s been a long time since I last saw Chekhov’s version (and not to brag, but I was lucky enough that my NY buddy was happy to get up at 2am in the morning and wait in line at The Public Theatre to see their free 2001 Central Park production directed by Mike Nichols, starred Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Goodman, Marcia Gay Harden, Kevin Kline, Debra Monk, Stephen Spinella, and Natalie Portman), so I might be off key here. But, Stephens appears to be staying pretty dutiful throughout, beyond the surprising monologues that are recited by many of the characters straight out into the audience. Overall, it hits most of the beats and blasts of tragedy and dismissal with this loyal rendering. He pokes hard at the theatrical convention, while never being daring or brazen enough to throw them into the lake like Bradshaw. This is possibly both a plus and a minus for this particular Seagull.

Soulpepper‘s production modernizes the local, giving the labeled restructuring plenty to giggle at, like the spotlight sign telling us that the blue wall utilized throughout for target practice is the “Lake.” All this, thanks to the somewhat flat and plastic set design by Shannon Lea Doyle (Soulpepper’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train), with determined lighting by Jason Hand (Soulpepper’s The Barber of Seville) and some fine costuming by Snezana Pesic (Ghost River’s One). But unfortunately, sometimes the language doesn’t fit the surroundings (Yes, I’m back to the horses vs cars comment). This disconnect works, I think, when an older play is utilized in its original form inside a modern framework, like a Shakespearian play set in Mexico or New York City, but this is an adaptation of a classic, not the original text, so when this cast of characters talks about needing horses to get to the train station, we are taken out of the modern moment for no good reason. I couldn’t tell if this was due to the adaptation itself, or a director’s problematic choice. That’s a question I can’t answer. But I sure would like to know the reason that horses, not Ubers, are even mentioned here.

Yet, the cast does the framing well, with determination and precision, inside a production that plays silly. Like when the handyman swimmer, Jacob, played hilariously dull by Dan Mousseau (Howland’s Three Sisters) nods and strolls around the stage nonchalantly in his speedo without a care in the world. His engagement with the piece is maybe what I was wishing there was more of throughout the whole, but as directed by Brooks, the players dig their heels in hard to the drama, focusing on the pain and not so much on the comedic elements that Chekhov was hoping and writing for. The characters do sound fairly convincing in their authentic interactions, beyond the direct fourth wall breaking, but the melodrama sometimes interfered with the structuring, causing us to lean back, rather than lean into the heartbreak.

Paolo Santalucia and Michelle Monteith in Simon Stephens’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull at Soulpepper.

With the central mother character, Irina played with an over-the-edge intensity by Michelle Monteith (Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage), alongside her famous writer partner, Boris, portrayed by Raoul Bhaneja (Tarragon’s Bashir Lazhar), the pairing resonates, although Monteith never really feels ‘big’ enough for the role. Her voice doesn’t carry the weight of the woman, nor does her fits of narcissism ever feel solidly entrenched in her demeanor. She just doesn’t radiate that required kind of power that would make this woman work. Bhaneja’s self-obsessed ‘taker of notes’ does present well as someone who would blindly take on a lover without much regard for either woman’s emotional response or needs, but he also lacked, in his stance, a certain passion that would be at the core of this kind of impulse.

There are some clever tight bits of theatricality and engagement throughout though, as wheeled in by Hailey Gillis (Crow’s Theatre’s Ghost Quartet) as the young desperate and wide-eyed Nina to attend to the man who loves and adores her, Irina’s son, Konstantin, played passionately by the talented Paolo Santalucia (Soulpepper’s Spoon River). There is power in their off-balanced need for one another, and the way they attach for compellingly different reasons. Oliver Dennis (Soulpepper/Native Earth’s Where The Blood Mixes) as Irina’s ailing older brother, Peter Sorin, and Diego Matamoros (Soulpepper’s Waiting for Godot) as Doc Hugo, find an honest connection to those around them, especially with the sad and struggling Masha, portrayed somewhat stiffly by Ellie Ellwand (NTS’s Exit the King) who eventually enters into a one-sided marriage with Simeon, dutifully portrayed by Farhang Ghajar (Stratford’s The Tempest) in spite of herself.

Brooks and Stephens have created a Seagull that is more heartbreaking in its soul than Bradshaw’s. Theirs is filled with anguished speeches about love destroying sanity as well as the self-possessed passion that ends up being more ego than id. The two tertiary characters; Masha’s father and estate manager Leo, played haphazardly by Randy Hughson (Stratford’s To Kill a Mockingbird) has another type of self-absorption, telling old stories that could only be fascinating to the teller and not his audience, as well as his wife, Paulina, played with a wild wonton fire by Robyn Stevan (Factory’s Three Sisters), who literally tears into her passion for the doctor with a force that felt out of the blue and out of character. The New Group‘s Amy Stiller (TNG’s Hotel Universe) and Daniel Oreskes (TNG’s Happy Talk) as their equivalent couple, Pauline and Darren, suffer a similar fate, but at least their card game actually feels real and involved. The Soulpepper shuffling did not.

Soulpepper’s The Seagull.

Once again the circle of unrequited love for one that loves another who doesn’t return the favor flows and spins forth fairly strongly in the three-hour production (including an intermission), feeding on the ridiculous and the profound with a sad hunger, as the mismatching love brings destruction and jealousy to almost everyone who enters that country estate. Toxic ambition and blatant disregard for others feed the flames that drive all to shoot down the joy that flies above. Both productions find a unique way to navigate the waters, and although neither found the perfect route, each has forged something compelling and connecting, even in the rougher waters. It is astounding that Chekhov’s masterpiece continues to deliver in both of these creators’ able hands.

The New Group production wants us to “Dance with Somebody” on an insider laugh track, using & Juliet headphones to heighten the experience. It tosses bawdy jokes one after the other that can either make us laugh or cry out with a groan as we take in the line, “I didn’t mean it, and try not to be so unhappy.” Inside the Bradshaw reconstruction, we embrace the humor and the pain, but lightly, while Stephens wants us to understand the heartache to a much greater volume, even when the silly can seep into the crossing. I mean, the man behind me at Soulpepper was crying big time by the end of the play, sobbing almost uncontrollably, while I must admit that I couldn’t have located a tear inside me if I tried. Inside either of these productions.

But both manage to find the humanity stitched into the ridiculousness of most moments and throw-off comments that bite. And although I thought Soulpepper‘s Seagull took itself a bit too seriously emotionally and structurally, becoming something that could only be described as ‘an off-balanced modern old version of a classic’, rowing itself forward through choppy waters, it was difficult to compare it to The Seagull/Woodstock, NY. That fully realized version, steeped in clever dismissal is a blatant rebooting, telling the same tale but from a motorized power boat out for a joy ride. In looking at the pair a few weeks apart, both are fascinating examples of contrasting reformations, where two brilliant writers found different angles and routes of passage to the same casual indifference to death and disconnection. Each has value with complications that can’t be ignored. Yet, I will say that Posey is the power that made that New York one my favorite. No one would ever say to her “Your work isn’t good enough to get produced in a dinner theater in Kansas City.” Not in a million years. Even if it is one of my favorite lines.

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