(From left) Kimberley Drake, Rachel Huys, Ross Moore, Wendi Smallwood, Lawrence Barry and Timothy Foss perform a scene from Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” which has been adapted by Open Theatre Co. and set in St. John’s.
— Photo by Victoria Wells/Submitted photo
Natalia Hennelly’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” will satisfy those who admire the Russian playwright’s dramas for their tragically frustrating relationships, plots that meander to the stalling point and their blend of ironic humour and melancholic longing for broader, more meaningful existence.
Hennelly transposes the action from a 19th-century Russian estate (Chekhov’s standard setting) to a contemporary organic farm in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The farm belongs to Irene (Wendi Smallwood), an actress who has made good on the stages of Toronto and Stratford and now lives the apparently glamorous and sophisticated life others in the play desire.
Arriving with her younger lover, the successful writer Trigorin (Ross Moore), she disturbs the already tense world of the farm.
Hennelly, who also directs, manifests this tension with varying results.
She generates moments of terrific atmosphere by allowing her actors to take their time; speaking and moving languidly, they work up textbook sub-textual meanings that hover between the lines.
Lawrence Barry as the retired doctor Gene is the master of such acting here, appearing to think and judge far more than he says.
The overt confrontations do not always carry the same weight. When conflict breaks out between Irene and her son Konstantine (Michael Worthman), an aspiring writer who envies and despises Trigorin, both Smallwood (in her flowing look-at-me-I’m-an-actress clothes) and the incessantly gesticulating Worthman, are undoubtedly funny as semi-parodies of self-important artists.
However, Worthman’s urgent pleading for Nina, an aspiring actress who falls for Trigorin, is not as powerful as the quiet atmospheric moments — though Victoria Wells-Smith does take the naïve edge off her Nina in the last act when she has been shattered by Trigorin’s rejection.
Yet this 10-actor production relies on the strength of its ensemble, since the line between principal and minor characters is blurred.
Moore’s Trigorin is a detached observer, except when he reveals to a rapt Nina the demonic drive to write that lies beneath his mild exterior.
George Robertson is very fine as Simon, an ineffectual schoolteacher who persuades Maggie (Kimberley Drake), in love with an indifferent Konstantine, to marry him.
Drake’s persuasive decline from adolescent ardor into bitter wifehood mirrors Rachel Huys’ performance as Maggie’s pathetic stepmother Pauline, married to farm manager Elijah.
If Frank Holden imbues Peter, Irene’s doddering brother, with dignity, Timothy Foss revels in his marvellously awkward and petulant Elijah.
Hennelly’s adaptation wears its contemporary setting lightly so that the significance of the conflict between Newfoundland and central Canada — the cosmopolitan world to which Konstantine and Nina aspire — emerges by suggestion.
Thus, as the amorphous plot concludes by veering sharply to tragedy, the titular seagull that Konstantine earlier killed in a cruel gesture to Nina becomes, perhaps, a subtle symbol of central Canadian neglect of N.L. culture.
Or perhaps it does not.
Nevertheless, at the end, as Gene draws Trigorin to the front of the stage under dimmed lights to inform him of a suicide, the connotation is worth considering for an audience tucked away in a darkened corner of the Arts and Culture Centre’s basement.
“The Seagull” continues at the Arts and Culture Centre’s Barbara Barrett Theatre until May 11.
For tickets call 729-3900.