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American Players Theatre nails Chekhov's dark humor in The Seagull
Delighting in despair
A writer loses his way.
Credit:Carissa Dixon

The Seagull is not some boring old Russian play. Anton Chekhov's 1895 piece is stunningly relevant in 2014. The excellent production by American Players Theatre production (through Sept. 20) makes for a satisfying time at the Up-the-Hill Theatre in Spring Green; it's a show that will linger in audience members' minds for a long time.

Chekhov subtitled The Seagull "a comedy in four acts." The comedy isn't so much ha-ha funny, though on opening night, the audience laughed a surprising amount. Instead, humor arrives in its darkest, most devastating form. This paradox -- that a play so tragic could be branded a comedy -- fits perfectly with many themes explored in the show.

At intermission, I overheard another viewer call the play "different." While at first that might seem like a polite dismissal, she got it precisely right. The Seagull is different. It's complex, but not confusing. It is full of both caricature and reality. It leaves us struggling over who to name as hero.

These complexities mean that The Seagull requires a lot of versatility from its actors and director John Langs. Fortunately, they deliver. As aspiring writer Konstantin (Kostya), Christopher Sheard begins the play young and eager, passionate about shaking up the world of theater. He's also deeply in love with his neighbor Nina (Laura Rook). By the fourth act, only two years later, Kostya is devoid of youth and doesn't "know what [his] calling is." Sheard makes his character's destruction clear: Kostya's posture is stiffer and his voice sounds resigned. He no longer resembles the fervent, if troubled, young man he once was.

Tracy Michelle Arnold commands the attention of the other characters -- and the audience -- as Kostya's mother, Irina. This character is an actress who, though just past her prime, gleefully insists that she could still play a 15-year-old. Jim DeVita is comfortable in his role as Irina's lover, the writer Boris Trigorin; his delivery is natural and contemporary.

Holly Payne's costume design is also notable. Arnold's Irina is draped in rich purples and pinks. Her outfits grow bigger and brighter throughout the play. The opening-night audience gasped and laughed when, in Act IV, she entered the stage in a hat so big it hardly fit through the door, a dramatic purple velvet dress and a big white fur. By the end of the play, Kostya has discarded his country clothes and appears in a three-piece suit, looking polished but uncomfortable.

In a parting nod to the wonderful subtleties of the play, The Seagull ends not with a line or word from the script, but with a single look. The final scene is one of the most beautiful, albeit tragic, endings to any play I've seen, and the tension of the entire story shatters terribly and gorgeously. Realizing something dreadful has happened, Irina rises up from her lotto game, a look of horror on her face.

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