August 14, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Cal Shakes delivers a razor-sharp Seagull.
By Brad Rosenstein
IT'S TAKEN ME the longest time to really "get" Anton Chekhov. I find many translations of his work awkward and obtuse, and I've rarely had the pleasure of seeing productions that truly revealed his work to me. It wasn't until I saw a remarkable rendering of Uncle Vanya, adapted by David Mamet and featuring a knockout cast, that I finally began to grasp Chekhov in all his understated, shimmering complexity. I've been hungry to repeat the experience ever since, and it's just arrived from an unexpected source: after a stumbling season to date, the California Shakespeare Festival has come roaring back to life with an inspired production of The Seagull.
The hardest thing to capture in Chekhov is the tone, a slippery blend of passion, humor, sadness, irony, and wisdom that is fiendishly difficult to get right. But director Jonathan Moscone and his excellent cast nail it, putting an emphasis on the humor that is neglected in far too many Chekhov productions. They are helped immeasurably by Tom Stoppard's deft translation, which brings a crisp wit and immediacy to scenes that are often muddily rendered. Riding the crest of that style are Susannah Schulman's superb Nina, traveling from youthful idealism to mature pragmatism in deft, moving strokes, Charles Dean's self-amused Sorin, Dan Hiatt's wry Dorn, Kandis Chappell's wily Arkadina, James Carpenter's devouring Trigorin, and Emily Ackerman's often hilariously frustrated Masha.
Moscone has a knack for realizing theatrical resonances: like his self-referential use of the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater itself, you can see the skeletons of everyone from Shakespeare to Beckett showing through the skin of this production. However, Moscone is at his best when he doesn't merely point out these connections (as he aridly did in his Midsummer Night's Dream this season) but uses them as vital instruments to crack open a play's truth. Here, possessed of characters who are themselves self-consciously theatrical, Moscone uses the act of theater-making just as Chekhov did: as an endlessly meaningful metaphor for life and love, an arena for frustration, ambiguity, and survival. Just as in the production's Kronos Quartet soundtrack, featuring neo-romantic scores by everyone from Philip Glass to Astor Piazzola, this Seagull digs into the flesh and spirit of love in fresh, dangerous, surprising ways and brings Chekhov's soul magically to life.
In Jeffrey Hartgraves's new comedy, Carved in Stone, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde, and Quentin Crisp all reside in a tasteful afterlife lounge. Joining these gay literary icons is the newly deceased Gryphon Tott (David Tenenbaum), a hot young writer who at first seems an ideal match for their company. But Gryphon is not all that he appears, and as successive layers of his true nature are revealed, the question of exactly why he has been elected to this exclusive club drives the play.
This literary No Exit makes for a delectable premise, and Hartgraves has great fun eavesdropping on the tart bon mots of these überqueens as they enjoy an eternal happy hour. Some of the best lines are, predictably, original to their subjects. Yet Hartgraves gets in some sharp licks of his own while squeezing comic mileage from the more familiar utterances, especially Wilde's hoarier epigrams. The play moves right along when the banter is flying, but creaks whenever it's required to advance the plot. Unfortunately, Gryphon is little more than an anagrammatic pastiche of contemporary writers, a convenient device by which to address issues ranging from career-boosting gay identity to plagiarism. Still, things do heat up when Gryphon starts calling his illustrious predecessors on their weak spots.
Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Gertrude Stein, and Shakespeare all pop in for no particular reason other than to provide some campy lagniappe, and the play bubbles along with a pleasant mad-tea party energy. P.A. Cooley's astringent Capote and Matt Weimer's regal Wilde are both spot-on and delightful, and Hartgraves himself does fine, nuanced work as the baroquely eccentric Williams. Leon Acord's Crisp is a disappointing weak link, a role both underwritten and underplayed. Director John Fisher shows admirable restraint, staying in tune with the play's piquantly playful wistfulness and providing an unshowy staging on Stephen Drew Ritchings's handsome clubby set. Carved in Stone adds no groundbreaking new chapters to its brilliant subjects' bodies of work, but it's a smart, enjoyable fantasy spun from glittering literary lives.
'The Seagull' runs through Sept. 1. Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. (also Sat., 2 p.m.); Sun., 4 p.m., Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, Gateway Boulevard, Orinda. $13-$46. (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org. 'Carved in Stone' runs through Aug. 31. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m., Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson, S.F. $17-$20. (415) 778-4077.