On a wing and a whine

Undermain's The Seagull flies high over stormy waters

Some wag once said that if you want to keep your appetite for sausage and politics, you should never watch either one being made. To that warning I add the process of making art. Since I consider writing, music, and the visual arts to be infinitely superior experiences to a plate of juicy kielbasa or a Congressional debate on C-SPAN, I'm somewhat uncomfortable dragging art into such greasy company. It's nonetheless true that when creative types start serving up the blood and gristle of their own egos (the indispensable psychological factor in the creative process), I start getting indigestion.

So it's a testament to the fleet-footed, superbly performed Undermain production of Anton Chekhov's first theatrical success, The Seagull, that my tummy never once rumbled. This dramatic comedy for ensemble (or maybe it's a comic drama; decide for yourself) eyeballs one summer vacation at a prosperous Russian farm shared by family and friends of the dauntingly vain, hilariously human actress Irina (Jenna Worthen) and her temperamental, iconoclastic adult son Konstantin (Jeremy Schwartz). These two characters are the poles to which others are attracted or repelled. Both are creative types (Konstantin struggles to become a writer of "new forms") who require so much attention, they tend to suck all the oxygen out of the room. Perhaps this explains why so many of the satellites that orbit around them make decisions that suggest a cerebral cortex deprived of sufficient fuel.

Before we puncture this hermetically sealed universe of fragile sensibilities, a word about Chekhov: A theatrical-buff friend of mine says that any actor who attempts the formidable, turn-of-the-century Russian pioneer of realism must be able to "give good face." This indelicate diagnosis is a bull's-eye description of the heavy burden placed on actors--and the directors who guide them through rehearsals--to reveal, or at least strongly suggest, the motives that are only implied in the playwright's dialogue. One interpretation of a nebulous artistic school such as "realism" is that the characters onstage aren't any wittier, handsomer, smarter, sexier, more virtuous, or more evil than you or I. The accumulation and consequences of their ambitions and fears over a two-hour period, and our own empathetic reactions to it, are what constitute the value of this play. Performers who are unprepared to embroider the appropriate emotions around Chekhov's skeletal patterns of desperation wind up looking vapid and spacy, and the play itself becomes a symphony of anticlimactic pauses.

That The Seagull was Anton Chekhov's first theatrical hit after a long dry spell (he'd made a modest name as a writer of short stories, then was almost forgotten after a series of underappreciated plays in Moscow) shouldn't surprise us. He wrote it as a comedy, which means its characters and situations were jacked-up enough to woo theater audiences accustomed to the "special effects" of their day--farce and fable. And while writers from Socrates to Moliere were eager to lampoon the vanities of artists, Chekhov was among the first to establish a connection between their insecurities and their techniques of expression.

The nature of how, and what, to express is the subject of a titanic battle of wills between mama Irina and baby Konstantin, whose earnest effort to move the theater into new directions is freighted with an unfortunate ponderousness. He's resentful (and probably jealous) of his mother's relationship with Boris (Bruce DuBose), a much younger novelist who prefers fishing over gabbing about how painful and beautiful art is. Boris' grim serenity is a big turn-on to starry-eyed Nina (Jenni Tooley), daughter of a rich neighbor and the object of overweening admiration from Konstantin. It's difficult to tell with what Nina's more infatuated--Boris' quiet seriousness or his fame. Meanwhile, black-clad Masha (Kathryn Leigh Daniels), daughter of the manager (Michael Corolla) of Irina's brother's farm, seems to fancy Konstantin for the pure, restless, frustrated searching of his mind.

Round this out with Irina's invalid brother, Sorin (Robert Erwin, a hilarious observer of the shenanigans), and Dr. Dorn (Tom Lenaghen), a country physician with an eye for the ladies, and you've got a writhing nest of possible romantic complications. The Seagull leaves few farcical paths unexplored, but this wouldn't be Russian literature if somebody didn't make the ultimate grand gesture--suicide. The shift from sexual intrigue to tragic self-sacrifice isn't a particularly jarring one here, thanks to Katherine Owens' smooth-as-molasses direction--the tone she establishes nudges the actors always to remain connected to the sorrow that flows just underneath the surface of even Chekhov's pithiest dialogue.

A large-cast comedy like this one means that almost every actor involved has his or her shining moments, so singling anyone out for praise is an arbitrary exercise. Thankfully, Jenna Worthen doesn't match her actress character's emotional excesses with her own indulgences--she's arch and impatient, but equally convincing when Irina steps outside of herself to take the time to charm her son or her lover. Best of all, at a self-described "sixtysomething," Worthen is still sexy enough to make us believe she'd entice a mate much younger than herself.

As said mate, Bruce DuBose reminds us that he has one of the richest, most enticing voices on area stages, and it's best applied not in full thespian gust, but little moments of revelation--Boris is equally beguiling whether he's recounting the decidedly unromantic nature of his own artistic impulses or being wooed back by bald flattery to a previous lover. Jenni Tooley is forced by the script to descend into a somewhat inexplicable quasi-madness, in which she keeps confusing herself with a seagull. She deteriorates, wrapped all in black, with admirable focus; all her gushing expressions of faith that precede this final display connect every dot with as much intelligence as any actor could. Kathryn Leigh Daniels, a high school senior in Addison, more than holds her own among these seasoned cast members; all clad in black ("I'm in mourning for my life"), she offers hilarious commentary on the tempestuous poetic temperament.

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