The Seagull

Local Arts Reviews

The Seagull: The Friction Between Art and Life

McCallum Fine Arts Academy Theatre, through January 20

Running Time: 2 hrs, 25 min

The young woman stares at the successful writer with the irrepressible grin of infatuation. She is under the spell of art, and to her this man of letters is as alluring a figure as she has ever seen. She peppers him with questions about the literary life, and he accepts her attentions graciously, even with a certain amount of pleasure, judging by the delicate curl in the corner of his mouth. But the more they talk about art and how beautiful she finds his creative existence, the more his features harden, his eyes flash with cold fire. He tells her of the way art consumes his life, drives his every waking moment, dominates his thinking, and yet gives him precious little satisfaction, and as he does, his face takes on the look of a prisoner, one whose life is not his own, who sees the thick walls of a cell wherever he turns, who feels the weight of a shackle and chain with every step.

As performed by Christa Kimlicko Jones and David Stahl in the Austin Playhouse production of The Seagull, this scene between the aspiring actress Nina and the jaded author Tregorin provides a vivid feel for the tug of art in our lives. In Jones' shining countenance is an absolute faith in creative expression, a conviction in its power to inspire and transform humanity; she is Joan of Art. Stahl, on the other hand, is the Fallen One, a believer whose faith has been shattered by harsh reality -- the business of art, the fickleness of the public, his own feelings of inadequacy. He projects a disillusionment with and resentment of his artistic calling that is utterly convincing. The vibrance of these actors and the stark contrast they create in their performances sets up a splendid tension between them -- idealism and cynicism, hope and gloom, light and darkness -- that both communicates and stands for the friction that exists between art and life. That tension gives the scene life and pricks our interest in these people and what happens to them.

It's a tension that isn't uniform throughout the production. Most of the other scenes roll by somewhat languidly, coming across as little set pieces for another Chekhovian crew of discontented Russians: the famous actress, her invalid brother and firebrand writer of a son, the steward of their country estate and his wife, the village doctor, a schoolteacher, and a young woman in mourning clothes, none of whom are happy with their lot and are quick to tell you about it. The actors succeed in providing personalities for these figures, giving us a clear sense of their vanity, of their impatience with the demands being made on them, of their petulance in facing the struggles of life -- and they consistently draw laughs from these peoples' grumblings, something that's welcome to see in a production of Chekhov. Some -- most notably Everett Skaggs, whose Sorin feels about age the way Tregorin feels about life -- inject some poignance into their portrayals. But when these characters interact, most of the time the relationships between them remain slack. Even in a scene as highly charged as the one in which Arkadina, fearing she may lose Tregorin to Nina, woos him to leave the estate with her, comes across rather nonchalantly, as just one more relaxed exchange. It may be that the actors are so deep in playing the self-absorption of these characters that they aren't making the kind of connections with each other that develops a tension between characters and a palpable sense of community among them. Watching them in this autumnal setting -- Don Toner has built a set with tall, elegant archways like bare trees and accent strips patterned with leaves, and Buffy Manners has costumed the cast in sand, khaki, tan, and other shades of brown, accented with pale olives, roses, and mauves, like dried blossoms saved from the frost and pressed into the pages of a book -- you might think these figures were fallen leaves themselves, dropped away from the tree that bound them as one and now just single things, apart from everything else.

But there is in the midst of this autumn chill a taste of summer, that moment between Nina and Tregorin that ignites Chekhov's text and allows us to feel its heat and glorious illumination.

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The Seagull, Austin Playhouse, Don Toner, Buffy Manners, Christa Kimlicko Jones, Everett Skaggs, David Stahl

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