‘The Seagull/Woodstock, NY’ Review
The Seagull by Anton Chekhov is a favorite that receives productions and has been made into films, an opera and ballet performed all over the world. Some productions (with Ian McKellen at BAM in 2007) have been absolutely brilliant. What’s not to love about Chekhov with his dynamic and ironic character interactions, sardonic humor, enthralling conflicts that unspool gradually, then conclude with an ending that explodes and carries with it devastation and heartbreak. These elements cemented in Chekhov’s work since its initial production in 1896 represent what Chekhov himself described as a comedy.
Thomas Bradshaw, an obvious lover of Chekov’s The Seagull, has updated and adapted Chekhov’s work in the world premiere The Seagull/Woodstock, NY presented by The New Group. The playwright, who has previously worked with director Scott Elliott (Intimacy, Burning) has configured the characterizations, entertainment industry tropes, humor and setting in the hope of capturing Chekhov’s timelessness to more acutely evoke our time with trenchant dark ironies that are laughable. As he slants the humor and pops up the sexuality, which Chekhov largely kept on a subterranean level, Bradshaw has added another dimension to view the themes of one of Chekhov’s finest plays. Directed by Scott Elliott with a cast that boasts Parker Posey, Hari Nef, David Cale, Nat Wolff, Aleyse Shannon and Ato Essandoh as the principal cast, The Seagull/Woodstock, NY, at the Pershing Square Signature Theater has been extended to April 9th.
The play’s action takes place in a bucolic area in the Hudson Valley. Woodstock is the convenient “home away from home” of celebrities who live, work and fly between Los Angeles and Manhattan, and who feel they need to take a break between jobs, or just take a break from the stress of performance and helter skelter pressures and BS of the industry. The house where they retreat to is peopled by the family, caretakers, guests and a neighbor. The individuals are based on Chekhov’s characters, brother Soron, sister, actress Arkadina and son Constantine, who Bradshaw has renamed Samuel (David Cale) Irene (Parker Posey) and Kevin (Nat Wolff). Chekhov’s Trigoren, Arkadina’s lover, Bradshaw renames William, who is portrayed by Ato Essandoh. Nina, whose Chekhov name Bradshaw keeps is portrayed by Aleyse Shannon. Chekhov’s Masha becomes Bradshaw’s Sasha (Hari Nef).
In his update Bradshaw streamlines some of Chekhov’s dialogue and upturns the emphasis of conversation into the trivial without Chekhov’s character elucidation, as he spins these individuals into his own vision. The cuts truncate the depth of the characters, making them more shallow without resonance or humanity with which we might identify on a deeper level. However, that is Bradshaw’s point in relaying who they are and how they are a product of the noxious culture and the times we live in, unable to escape or rectify their being.
For example the initial opening conversation between Samuel (David Cale) and Kevin (Nat Wolff) loses the feeling of the protective bond between uncle and nephew scored with nuance and fine notes in Chekhov’s Seagull. Additionally, in their discussion of actress Irene, Kevin’s criticism of his mother emphasizes her faults and superficiality. In the Chekhovian version, the son expresses his feelings of inferiority in the company of the artists at his mother’s gatherings. Because of the son’s admissions we immediately understand his inner weakness and hopelessness, feelings which set up the rationale for his devastation of Nina’s abandonment and his suicide attempts later in the play.
Chekhov’s characterization of the actress and mother is tremendously subtle and cleverly humorous. Bradshaw’s iteration of the celebrity actress, her lover, the ingenue Nina and Irene’s brother become lost in the eager translation into comedy without the emotional grist and grief which fuels the humorous ironies of human frailty. Again, as we watch Bradshaw’s points about these individuals which reflect our modern selves, we laugh not with them ruefully, but at them for their obnoxiousness and blind hypocrisy.
Such points appear to be inconsequential and minor, however, the overall impact of Bradshaw’s characterizations makes them appear to be stereotypes of artificiality rather than individuals who are believably sensitive, vulnerable and hypocritical so that we care about them, yet find humor in their bleakness. Irene adds up to a figure of sometime cartoonish arrogance and pomposity without the sagacity and nobility of Chekhov’s Arkadina, who nevertheless is intentionally “oblivious” to herself out of desperation, hiding behind her facade, which on another level reveals a tragic individual. The same may be said for the characters of William and Nina who deliver the forward momentum of the work in their relationship that symbolically and sexually culminates in a bathtub on the stage where Nina previously masturbated as a key element of Kevin’s play. Their characters remain artificial and shallow, and the play’s conclusion and Nina’s collapse follows flatly without the drama and moment so ironically spun out in Chekhov’s Seagull.
Indeed, the meaning of Bradshaw’s work is clear. There has been a diminution of artistic greatness and sensibility, moment and nobility in our cultural ethos, which makes these players as inconsequential and LOL as he has drawn them. They are caricatures who wallow in artificiality and purposelessness, not of their own making. They have been caught up in the tide of the times and the vapid culture they seek to be celebrated in. That some of the actors push for laughs which don’t appear to come from organic, moment-to-moment portrayals makes complete sense. Theirs is a high-wire act and anything is up for grabs. Whatever laughter can be teased out, must be attempted. That is who these people are in The Seagull/Woodstock, NY.
Though the actors (especially Posey who portrays Irene with the similitude of other pompous, self-satisfied characters we’ve come to associate her with) attempt to get past the linearity of Bradshaw’s update, they sometimes become stuck, hampered by the staging, the playing area and direction whose action perhaps might have alternated between stage left and stage right (the audience is on three sides). Most of the action and conversation (facing the upstage curtain where Kevin puts on his play in the first act) takes place stage right. Since the set is minimalist and stylized with rugs, chairs and other props forming the indoor and outdoor spaces, the stage design might have been more fluid so that the various conversations were centralized. Unfortunately, some of the dialogue became swallowed up and the actors didn’t project to accommodate for the staging.
Only Nat Wolff’s portrayal of Kevin rang the most real and authentic. However, this is in keeping with the overall conceit that the playwright and director are conveying. Wolff doesn’t push for laughs and his portrayal of Kevin’s intentions are spot on. As a contrast with the other characters, he is a standout and again, this appears to be Bradshaw’s laden message. Kevin is driven to suicide by the situation, his mother, William’s remote selfishness and Nina’s devastation which she has brought upon herself. He is happier to be away from them. And perhaps Irene will be relieved, after all is said and done, that he has finally succeeded to end his misery. As Bradshaw has drawn her and as the director and Posey have characterized her, Irene has an incredible penchant for obliviousness.
At times the production is uneven and the tone is muddled. At its worst The Seagull/Woodstock, NY is a send up of Chekhov’s The Seagull that doesn’t quite make it. At its finest Bradshaw, Elliott and the ensemble reveal the times we live in are destroying us as we attempt to escape but can find no release nor sanctuary from out own artificiality and meaninglessness, as particularly evidenced in the characters of Irene, William and Nina. Only Kevin appears to have true intentions for his art but is stymied by the crassness of those considered to be exceptional but are mediocre. As in all great artistic achievement, only time is the arbiter of true genius. Perhaps Kevin’s time for recognition will come long after Nina, Irene and William are dead.
The creative team for The Seagull/Woodstock, NY includes Derek McLane (scenic design) Qween Jean (costume design) Cha See (lighting design) Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen (sound design) UnkleDave’s Fight-House (fight and intimacy director). For tickets and times go to the website https://thenewgroup.org/production/the-seagull-woodstock-ny/