Austin Shakespeare's The Seagull

This new adaptation of Anton Chekhov's beloved classic takes wing well enough but doesn't quite soar

Tyler Layton and Matt Radford Davies in <i>The Seagull</i>
Tyler Layton and Matt Radford Davies in The Seagull (Photo by Errich Petersen)

I've always loved the relationship between Irina and Konstantin in The Seagull. It's a beautiful theatrical allusion; the mother and the son, the former a famous relic of "stuffy" classical theatre, the latter the "new" avant-garde, here to destroy the old conventions and "fix" everything. It's almost as though Chekhov purposely placed The Seagull between the two, pointing straight at its position between the births of realism and modernism. It's an apt metaphor for theatre in general, if not simply a microcosm of the theatre scene in Austin.

Austin Shakespeare Artistic Director Ann Ciccolella's adaptation, which she directs, struggles to make its own passionate stand, however. Don't misunderstand me; this is a good production of Chekhov's classic. There's just something there, or perhaps something not there, that keeps it from being great – an A- when you want the A+, although the A- is perfectly respectable.

It doesn't feel like any particularly new ground is broken, nor discoveries unveiled warranting a new adaptation. Is it a museum piece, or has Ciccolella found something new to say with an old story? Since no further information is given in the program, we're left to wonder, how is it an adaptation? And to what end? Adapted from what? Chekhov's original text, presumably? Which translation? Eagle-eyed Chekhov scholars may know the answers; the rest of the audience may not. The script does, however, remain incredibly relatable – Ciccolella is correct when she remarks in her program note that "You have all lived through your own version of these scenes" – and the performances are mostly solid, though a bit uneven in places.

Christopher Hejl's set is clever in its adaptability. A platform raised on cinder blocks and a courtyard outside a facade provide the exterior setting for the first half, along with a large scrim and beautiful hanging moon lit perfectly to resemble twilight by Patrick W. Anthony (whose lighting throughout is appropriately atmospheric). William Meadows' sound design is of note; ambience sets mood without leading or intruding. The second half sees the same space as the interior of Sorin's estate – the scrim removed and furniture applied. It's a simple but elegant use of the Rollins Theatre space, and some exposed building elements are perhaps meant to remind us that we are seeing a play – it's the words and the story they tell that are important.

Most of the performances are rich and nuanced, full of layer and texture. Helen Merino's Masha, for example, is lovely – fully realized, every subtle choice deliberate and often morbidly funny as she pines for Konstantin yet resigns herself to Medvedenko, a local school teacher. Tyler Layton is the perfect Irina Arkadina: a brash diva whose tender reality unravels as she pleads with Trigorin to stay ... or is this an act as well? As the estate's patriarch, Irina's brother Sorin, Ev Lunning Jr. is as lovable and charming as he is doddering. Matthew Radford Davies turns in an excellent performance as Trigorin, making him a somewhat befuddled and bemused figure rather than the impassioned, tortured writer usually seen. While his acting is terrific, I'm not sure the choice works as it seems to hamper Trigorin's development and relationships, particularly with Nina.

Other performances seem a bit hollow. There's a certain "jeans and T-shirt" vibe with some members of the supporting cast that, along with not fitting Benjamin Taylor Ridgway's period costumes, just doesn't fit the play itself – the text dealt with by speaking beautiful words beautifully, but with little weight or intent behind them. And while capable performances by Corinna Browning and Andrew Matthews as Nina and Konstantin pass muster otherwise, a lack of chemistry and authenticity bogs down their final scene together – unfortunate as it's the crux of the play.

In the end, there's more good than not-so-good in this offering by Austin Shakespeare. As a presentation of a classic, beloved piece of theatre, it flies well enough ... but for me, it doesn't quite soar.

The Seagull

Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 Riverside
Through Feb. 25
Running time: 2 hr., 20 min.

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Austin Shakespeare, Ann Ciccolella, Helen Merino, Tyler Layton, Matt Radford Davies, Ev Lunning Jr., Corinna Browning, Andrew Matthews, Christopher Hejl, Patrick Anthony, William Meadows

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