REVIEW: The Seagull (Goodman Theatre)


          
           

Robert Falls allows this glorious ‘Seagull’ to soar

 

 

Nina (Heather Wood) listens as Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain) talks about his obsession with writing and the fame that consequently follows as Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher) looks on.

   
Goodman Theatre presents
   
The Seagull
   
Written by Anton Chekhov 
Directed by
Robert Falls 
Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
(map)
through November 21  |   tickets: $20-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

With The Seagull, Robert Falls makes a stunning 180-degree swerve from the massive, nearly operatic productions he’s staged over the past few years. If King Lear and Desire Under the Elms were thundering landslides of theatricality, The Seagull is a lone, perfect pebble. Which isn’t to say Falls’ take on Anton Chekhov’s ground-breaking masterpiece lacks the gob-smacking emotional heft of his overtly showier efforts. Far from it. Played by actors in minimal costumes on a bare stage, The Seagull is as thrilling a production as you’re apt to see this season – an example of storytelling at its most powerful. That Falls manages to enthrall without the help of conventional costumes, sets or even lighting design illustrates just how gifted the Goodman’s Artistic Director is.

(clockwise from front center) Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) informs Masha (Kelly O’Sullivan), Dr. Dorn (Scott Jaeck), Sorin (Francis Guinan) and Medvendenko (Demetrios Troy) that Nina has returned to town but will not see any of them.Another indication of Falls storytelling prowess: Two hours of The Seagull elapse before the audience is released for an intermission. We’d be the first to cry foul at such a demand. Holding your audience captive for 115 minutes? Not fair. Moreover, since the vast majority of the dialogue within The Seagull seems to deal solely with superficial inanities, such a marathon sit will surely be all but intolerable, yes? In this case, no. Falls and his rockstar cast have captured the emotional truth in Chekhov’s text with a power and a glory that makes the piece fly by. Those first two hours feel like 20 minutes.

The intricate passions of Chekhov’s story are reflected in the sprawling cast, every member of which has their own vibrantly realized emotional life – right down to a cook (Laura T. Fisher) who has but a single line and less than a minute of stage time. When even the ‘bit’ roles are this rich, you know you have an ensemble of extraordinary power.

The action – which is actually mostly dialogue – spans several years and takes place on the country estate of Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), a famed, vain actress for whom adulation is an opiate. Much of The Seagull focuses on Arkadina’s tectonic clashes with her angry young son Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush), a playwright struggling with love and art. The difference between mother and son is akin to the difference between Broadway in Chicago and any number of tiny, Off-Loop theaters. Which is to say: Konstantin, who sees his own art as pure, beautiful and meaningful while dismissing his mother’s shows as pandering tripe.

 

Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher) expresses her deep passion and need for Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain) to stay with her. Masha (Kelly O’Sullivan) seeks to numb her feelings and shut out the rest of the world.
Sorin (Francis Guinan) attempts to comfort Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) as he grapples with the complexities of his life. Nina (Heather Wood) performs in one of Konstantin’s plays in front of (l to r) Medvendenko (Demetrios Troy), Shamrayev (Steve Pickering), Polina (Janet Ulrich Brooks), Dr. Dorn (Scott Jaeck), Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain), Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) and Sorin (Francis Guinan).

Fisher is glorious, mining both comedy and pathos from a character whose depths are often profoundly superficial.  Grush is perfectly cast as a tortured artist who strives for edginess with the rage of a petulant child who is certain that adults are trivial and adult artists are pandering hacks. In their scenes together, the two are incendiary, a mother and son whose see-sawing love/hate relationship will never find an even keel.

Kelly O’Sullivan’s Masha is equally indelible, a black-clad emo/Goth prototype capable of the sort of gasp-inducing cruelty borne of unbearable sorrow and frustration. In capturing the bitter aesthetic of a woman who knows her life is over at 20, O’Sullivan is also laugh-out-loud funny, blurring the line between tragedy and comedy with such finesse that they become impossible to tell apart. As Masha’s husband, Demetrios Troy continues establishing himself as one of the most fascinating young actors around, portraying the put-upon Medvedenko as the personification of disillusionment and impotent fury borne not of hatred but of love.

And as Nina, the radiant, innocent young woman who is as easily destroyed as the titular bird Konstantin slaughters, Heather Wood makes Chekhov’s overarching metaphor a devastating heart-breaker.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) shows his affection for his mother, Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), after a traumatic experience.

 

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REVIEW: A True History of the Johnstown Flood (Goodman Theatre)

Design team is all that’s left above water

 

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Goodman Theatre presents
 
A True History of the Johnstown Flood
 
by Rebecca Gilman
directed by
Robert Falls 
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through April 18th (more info | tickets)
 
reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Rebecca Gilman’s  latest play is titled A True History of the Johnstown Flood, but those hoping for any kind of insight into the tragedy will leave the Goodman Theatre’s production disappointed. As will those hoping to see a compelling story peopled with engaging characters. What A True History of the Johnstown Flood does offer is a condescending 2.5 hour lecture on the evils of Robber Baron capitalism backed by an award-worthy sound design and some amazing sets.

johnstown-flood_007 Speaking of which: The Goodman itself becomes an unintended, unavoidable and meta-theatrical punchline when one character opines with righteous indignation that some people go to the theater just to see the elaborate sets.  The line refers to theater-goers of the 19th century, but it  might as well refer to those who show up at the Goodman during the run of A True History of the Johnstown Flood.

Director Robert Falls might be working with paper dolls for all the authentic  emotion he gets from a cast trapped in a narrative that has all the authenticity of a Perils of Pauline episode.

Set in 1889, the piece contains many plays-within-the-play, as it follows the fate of the Baxter family acting troupe. Siblings Fanny (Heather Wood, doing what she can with an underwritten ingenue), James (Stephen Louis Grush, consistently out-acted by his wig) and Richard (Cliff Chamberlain, stuck in a character whose emotional journey peaks with an excruciating case of  explosive diarrhea) represent the working poor as they perform for a pittance at a posh resort located alongside a manmade lake high above working class Johnstown.

The Baxters perform in the style of the time – hackneyed plots delivered with stilted, exaggerated gestures and plumy, overripe line delivery. It is not a good sign when it becomes impossible to differentiate between the Baxter’s melodramas and Gilman’s drama.  But Gilman’s narrative is that hollow and histrionic and under Falls’ direction, that histrionically performed.

Take (please) a scene wherein Clara Barton arrives in Johnstown and encounters Richard in the throes of what was once called the bloody flux. The dialogue is as stiff as a cadaver as Clara announces who she is and explains that she is with the Red Cross, and that the Johnstown Flood is the first  Natural Disaster the Red Cross has responded to since the Civil War was a war and not a Natural Disaster.  It’s like watching the Hall of Presidents exhibit at Disneyland: Soulless, superficial and self-consciously educational.

johnstown-flood_012The 90-minute first act is a long, slow slog of exposition and declamation, as the Baxter siblings discuss their “museum worthy sets” and perform for the swells. James, who has been to Europe and ostensibly seen a few Ibsen plays, augments his performing career by writing bad plays about the unfair conditions of the proletariat. Cue the thick-as-river-bottom-sludge foreshadowing:  James runs into an ancient fisherman who explains the potential for flooding like some latter day Sophoclean messenger.

The worst instance of  this automaton-school-of-(over)acting comes toward the close of the 90-minute first act, in what should be a breathtakingly suspenseful  climax as the Baxters – and their newfound patron, the wealthy Andrew Lippincott (Lucas Hall)  -  are holed up with their sets in a freight car as the storms rages outside. The huddled group learns of the approaching disaster via a series of telegrams, each one delivered by the same, increasingly het up fellow.

Instead of the all-but unbearable tension borne of the knowledge that a disaster is imminent and one might be breathing one’s last, the scene is all fussy, unintended comedy. By the time the water arrived (with a blackout and Richard Woodbury’s extraordinary sound design), we found ourselves so distracted by the telegram man’s superpowers (Was the telegram office right next door to the Baxter’s train car? How was he getting back and forth so fast? Could he fly?)  the flood itself seemed almost beside the point.

Sound designer Woodbury provides the sole harrowing moment in the piece, capturing the crashing din of 20 million tons of water – and the countless trees, homes, corpses, animals and debris caught within its violent roil – with an apocalyptic sonic roar so fearsome it evokes the fury of the Old Testament’s God. It’s horrifying, and it is the sole moment in the play that effectively evokes the nightmarish event that is the Johnstown Flood.

Post-flood (and post intermission), the story dribbles into soggy inconsequence. People enter and exit looking for loved ones on a stage strangely bereft of corpses given the elaborate nature of the Goodman’s production values elsewhere in the drama. The flood killed over 2,000 people, but for all its big-budget resources, the Goodman has only three or four dead bodies on stage in a scene that supposedly shows desperate survivors searching for their loved ones amid hundreds of fatalities.

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Later comes a  potentially intriguing exchange as Lippincott discusses the flood with an official from the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club – the organization responsible for building Lake Conemaugh as a playground for the rich, and thereby endangering the lives of the working class folk downstream. But the Club man disappears after that single conversation.  Instead of the class conflict the scene seems to portend, Gilman gives us only James’ hackneyed attempts at social justice via melodrama, with the Baxters beating their breasts and wailing unto the skies with all the verisimilitude of canned hams.

In the end, the Baxters inexplicably forsake their careers in the theater. A new cast is seen rehearsing James’ play on Broadway while James and Fanny are seemingly far away in a domestic life that doesn’t involve their “museum quality sets.”  Their abrupt retirement would be perplexing, if the story had given audiences any reason to care. But there is no such reason, unless, of course, you want to know what became of all that marvelous scenery.

 
Rating: ★½
 

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