by Aaron Posner
Directed by Vinetta Strombergs
The Bird Collective Presentation at Pop-Up Theatre
Toronto. February 28-March 19, 2017
A loose, irreverent, contemporary adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, Aaron Posner’s off-Broadway hit receives a commendable production at a venue that is well-suited to site-specific theatre. Once a golf store, before it became the very famous Ed Mirvish Restaurant, Pop-Up is really a large space divided into sections that can be imaginatively used, budgets permitting. Vinetta Strombergs’s production capitalizes on the surviving mural expansively painted as a pastoral lakeside on long walls in what is being used as the first act setting—Madam Arkadina’s backyard. Chekhov’s 19th century characters—all of whom are unfortunately in love with those who do not or cannot return this love—have morphed into 21st century rough equivalents, though Posner conflates two of the original characters and drops a few others. Irena Arkadina, the famous, temperamental stage actress, is now Emma, a famous, egotistical stage, screen, and television actress, and her latest lover is not the Boris Trigorin of Chekhov’s original but Doyle Trigorin, a tattooed hunk -with an unfortunately mixed name. Konstantin, her neurotically insecure playwright son, is now Con, a neurotically insecure experimental playwright/director who inveighs against the contemporary theatre (calling Cirque du Soleil a hand-job that’s pleasurable but without producing real change) while pushing his own post-modernist agenda, including a site-specific theatre practice. Konstantin’s beloved, Nina, is still named Nina, and she does idealize the seagull (that appears only once, enclosed in a carrier bag) to the point where she identifies with it, but she falls in love with Trigorin and after having his baby (who dies), she goes mad or has an actress breakdown (with over-the-top Actors Studio realism).
Meanwhile, Mash (a self-proclaimed chef, still in black, as in Chekhov, though not simply in mourning for her life but because black is a slimming colour) loves Con, but he doesn’t return that love, while Dev (evidently a version of Medvedenko, the hapless schoolteacher, and Con’s best friend and supporter) is foolishly in love with her (his thighs ache, he laments with testosterone frustration) to little avail for most of the show. And, finally and not least, there’s Emma older brother, Dr. Eugene Sorn (a fusion of Chekhov’s Dr. Dorn and Sorin, Arkadina’s brother), who serves as chorus, divorced from his wife and a voyeur who infiltrates the imaginary fourth wall, as others do as a matter of course.
All this serves to enhance the raw, theatrically audacious nature of the script that follows the general contours of Chekhov’s play but with what one American critic has termed an endless self-awareness. The characters frequently speak directly to the audience, explaining themselves, sometimes seeking advice on how to go forward in their own particular private worlds, but this is where parody has its limits. When Con asks the audience to help him answer how he can get Nina to love him, Dev pipes up that the audience cannot do this because they know Con is fictional. Meta-theatre, you say? Of course, it is, upending Chekhov’s delicacy, though sometimes with admirable comic effect, as when Mash apologizes to Dev for not feeling any love for him, but then striking up a ditty on her ukulele: “Life is a muddle, life is a chore/Life is a burden, life is a bore./This apple is rotten right down to its core./Life…is disappointing.” A disappointingly flat line for such a funny and sharp parody, but this type of friction between parody and paraphrase, period convention and contemporary experiment occurs frequently, and often with striking effects, as the audience becomes literally ambulatory, moving their chairs from room to room (backyard to kitchen to garden), adapting to the changing spatial geometry, as well as to the tropes of style.
Whatever its inclination to be overripe or seem spontaneous, Posner’s play is not haphazard. It has a rough symmetry, making a fugue out of the phrase “Here we are,” which, at first, is the title of Con’s post-modernist theatrical experiment, replete with parody expressionism by Nina, then repeated at other points by other characters, including Con and Dr. Sorn. Well, where, in fact, are we—the we being both the characters and the audience itself? The actors watch us, as we watch them, engage in dialogue with some of us, then melt back into the action, only to re-emerge from point to point and challenge our expectations. There is little point in trying to match Posner with Chekhov because the play is a riff, a parody, a meta-theatrical reflection of how Chekhov’s characters are self-obsessed or self-aware.
The acting style required for such a piece is difficult in that it has to be well calibrated to the tone of the writing. Strombergs’s cast largely succeeds because the director skilfully modulates between parody and paraphrase, melodrama and psychodrama. Though Rachel Cairns’s Mash pushes the depression a bit much, she can be disarmingly funny, especially in her hysterical catalogue of miscellaneous horrors of the modern world. Her Dev is splendid Brendan Hobin, whose instincts for stand-up comedy are used in a disciplined, effective way. Karen Knox’s thwarted Nina negotiates a line between earnestness and self-parody, naivete and shattering truma, and she is excellent in her scenes with Craig Lauzon’s masculine and not emasculated quintessentially restless Trigorin even when he seems at rest. Daniel Maslany makes a fair meal out of Con, playing him very much in the manner of a post-modern Hamlet, forever childishly anxious or excited, unpredictable, explosive, self-questioning, disillusioned. The most mature performances come, not unexpectedly, from two mature performers. Sarah Orenstein’s Arkadina is well-rounded: selfish and doting; careless and jealous, while Richard Greenblatt’s Sorn is a well gauged chorus and character, with or without a guitar and song, always seeking to probe human behaviour, or, at least, pose the right questions about motivation and feeling. They add extra lustre to a play that is piercingly candid, yet one that raises questions whether 21st century’s Angst excludes catharsis.