It takes chutzpah to write new dialogue for Chekhov’s classic The Seagull and to insert Russian Jewish themes that didn’t exist in the original. While the setting and basic plot remain the same, Theater J’s The Seagull on 16th Street adds dramatic conflicts over the extent to which several characters, reimagined as Jewish, will cling to their heritage or seek to assimilate into Russian society. Yet Ari Roth’s daring in rewriting the play is a risk that pays off and rewards the audience with a new perspective on the drama. This innovative adaptation not only adds new ideas, but smoothly integrates them into the original work to enhance the characters and augment some of Chekhov’s theme.
The new material appears from the inception of the play. The young dramatist Treplev (Alexander Strain) rebels against the melodramatic grand theatre that made his mother Arkadina (Naomi Jacobson) a famous actress. In classic Chekhov, Treplev merely hopes to pursue experimental theatre forms that draw more on abstract ideas and symbols. Roth’s version not only has Treplev wanting to create theatre that draws upon his Jewish heritage, but also has his mother crush Treplev by describing the play performed for friends and family at a Russian country home as “Hebraic tripe” (instead of decadent rubbish).
Similarly, Arkadina is clearly thrilled by big city life where she is acclaimed by the intelligentsia and a member of the artistic elite. She is pleased to have escaped rural Russia, as represented by her brother Sorin (Stephen Patrick Martin) and the bohemian collection of friends and servants at Sorin’s country estate. Roth further adds to the sense of separation by having Treplev embrace his Jewish heritage while Arkadina has hidden it as part of seeking assimilation into mainstream Russian society (again, an invention added to Chekhov’s text). At one point Arkadina proclaims that she is Russian, not Jewish. Interestingly, the nineteen-year-old aspiring actress who appears in Treplev’s work, Nina (Veronica del Cerro), claims she is not Jewish, she is an artist.
The overlay of Jewish heritage extends to smaller details as well. Characters discuss whether to maintain Sabbath rituals and toast each other with “L’chaim.” When Treplev shoots a seagull (an act which foreshadows future sadness in the play), Nina states that “Killing a living creature is not very Jewish.” Later Nina recites lines from a drama called “The Sabbath Bride.”
While the play’s characters and plotline may not depend upon the Jewish perspective added in this adaptation, the approach is certainly consistent with Chekhov’s writing. A son trying to live up to his mother’s expectations, artistic souls exploring the meaning of life amid existential angst, and discontented characters with unrequited romantic feelings can all easily be melded with the new elements that Roth introduces.
The character relationships are unchanged.. Among the major figures, Treplev is in love with Nina. Nina, in turn, longs for the famous writer Trigorin (Jerry Whiddon), Arkadina’s consort.
Roth’s version does contain some variations in the mood of the piece. He attempts to keep the essentially wry mood, while updating the language and humor. This translation does not fully lend itself to the classic Chekhov atmosphere of wistful moments and meaningful silences. As a result, director John Vreeke astutely goes with a more contemporary vibe by unleashing the cast like a spirited team of horses to provide a more lively interpretation than usually seen, and the actors take full advantage of the opportunity.
Strain’s rendition of the conflicted son with mother issues is more energetic and impatient and less whiny and self-defeating than standard portrayals. His Treplev is less overtly troubled and yet more convincing as a realistic character. It’s a strong and confident performance that helps define the new adaptation.
Similarly, del Cerro brings an appealing vitality that adeptly captures both the dewy optimism and the vulnerability of her character. His spirit cannot be crushed by later off-stage elements (including an unhappy affair), so her description near the end of the play of the joy gained from post-misery artistic and spiritual growth is credible.
Whiddon convincingly reveals inner torment as the obsessive-compulsive writer who believes his fame is a fraud. He is less reticent and awkward than some portrayals of Trigorin, but his sense of frustration and dissatisfaction is more palpable. This approach makes it more understandable that he might consider an ill-fated affair with Nina, despite knowing that it could prove crushing to the young woman.
The one flawed performance is Jacobson’s portrayal of the vain and self-centered mother. She makes the character immature, verging on childish, without having the convincing grandness of a diva actress. As a result, some of her scenes are discordant notes that puncture the overall mood of the play. For example, her efforts to persuade Trigorin not to delay leaving the countryside for the city turn into a broad comic seduction scene that is inconsistent with the mood of the piece and lacks authenticity given Chekhov’s conception of the two characters.
Overall, the production moves smoothly despite occasional problems in tone. One innovation – the characters occasionally sing from modern songs while expressing their feelings carrying out their tasks (e.g., R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”) – is a mild distraction in a play set in the 1890’s Much more appealing is the use of some music by Shostakovich for scene changes and underscoring.
Misha Kachman’s stark scenic design and realistic costumes work well in setting the mood and focusing attention on the ensemble cast. The cast is generally effective, although some of the minor characters seem downgraded slightly in this adaptation. One standout is J. Fred Shiffman’s spot-on Chekhovian character performance as Dorn, a compassionate yet resigned doctor who is a family friend and who later helps attend to the sickly Sorin.
While The Seagull on 16th Street will never displace the original, Theater J’s innovative production does provide an interesting perspective both on Chekhov’s work and the circumstances of Russian Jews. This approach to reinterpreting and rewriting a traditional text opens fresh doors for a company that has focused on new works. One wonders what classic adaptations with supplemental Jewish themes might follow. Based upon this production, I’ll be eagerly awaiting Artistic Director Ari Roth’s next creation.
The Seagull on 16th Street
by Anton Chekhova
adapted by Ari Roth from a translation by Carol Rocamora
directed by John Vreeke
produced by Theater J
reviewed by Steven McKnight