I am walking up a gravel driveway, a playbill and a church-style hand fan in tow. To my left is an elegant home with a front porch running the length of the house front and a perfectly manicured lawn. To my right is a sprawling green meadow with a tree line in the distance. I can imagine Julie Andrews spinning in circles, arms outstretched.
Reaching the top of the hill, I enter into a shadowy grove, around 50 folding chairs facing a makeshift wooden stage at the far end. I can imagine the mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream performing their witless play here. I take a seat as the sun descends. It is almost showtime.
In 1895, a 35-year-old Anton Chekhov premiered his new play, The Seagull, in St. Petersburg. It was a disastrous production, but would become known as one of his four greatest works and one of the clearest examples of the “Chekhov’s gun” principle.
In 2012, 20-year-old British playwright Anya Reiss premiered her English-language adaptation of The Seagull in London. It was an instant smash, thanks to her fresh, contemporary take on the classic.
In 2017, Bartlett Theater founding artistic director Jonathan Bohun Brady is presenting Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, using Reiss’ adaptation as his blueprint. If Reiss’ London production was fresher than Chekhov, then Brady’s Durham production must be twice so. Reiss’ contemporary language and updated references keep things fresh, but Brady’s location choice makes it invigorating.
This play is a design challenge, with four distinct areas around the country estate of retiree Sorin: a makeshift outdoor stage, a lawn on the estate grounds, an interior of the house, and a drawing room, two years later.
In a conventional theater, lighting design can easily specify time of day, while set design suggests physical location and costuming clues us in to the weather. Bartlett Theater has eschewed the need for human-made design by staging the play outside on the sprawling property of director Brady near the Eno River State Park. I bring my folding chair with me between four locations: the grove, the meadow, the front porch, and a covered poolhouse patio.
Contemporary outdoor theater is not new, least of all in the Triangle area. Bare Theatre has staged dozens of productions outdoors, and Seed Art Share’s “moving plays” regularly traverse Downtown Raleigh. Many theaters do this out of necessity, typically a lack of facility. But whether any play needs to be outside is often debatable.
Not so with Brady’s presentation of The Seagull. Bursting with life, it cries to be outside. In a conventional theater, nosy characters eavesdrop from mere feet away, a character who wishes to prevent another’s exit has only a few feet to stop them before they reach the wings. When an actor leaves the stage, we imagine the character frozen in time.
In Bartlett Theater’s production of The Seagull, a potential lover can eavesdrop from many yards away, a parent can chase a child across a vast expanse, and the appearance and disappearance of actors can take up to a minute as they bike up a hill or stomp angrily off the porch. No one really exits any scene because the entire estate is the playing space. When a trio of arguing characters storms off into the distance, we imagine the debate continuing out of sight. The use of a working car adds excitement and realism to some characters’ departure.
Costume designer Brenda L. Hayes uses a clear palate to reflect each character’s personality, while sound designer Areon Mobasher manipulates the volume of his portable amp to suggest distance of certain music or effects.
This production is a bit of a UNC-Greensboro drama student reunion — half the cast and crew are alumni. This includes Adam Kampouris, who captures the complexity of the angsty bohemian Konstantin’s mental state over time. Moriah Williams plays ingenue Nina, shining brightly in the play’s final act.
Emily Rieder delicately unveils Masha’s depression and rage as Beth Ritson balances the wit and regret of pretentious mother Arkadina. Jim O’Brien and Joey Infinito both capture the dry paternal sarcasm of Sorin and Dorn, while David Klionsky plays Shamrayev like a 19th century theatrical clown. Chekhov would be proud. Shannon Malone plays Shamrayev’s wife Polina with sincerity, while Chris Wright flawlessly delivers Medvedenko’s often banal lines.
The fourth and final act has some sightline problems, with actors occasionally blocked from view, but this flaw is comparatively unimportant considering the overall production, which is inventive, funny, moving, and thoroughly entertaining. Despite the ghastly humidity on Saturday night, I have rarely enjoyed myself so much at the theater. Bartlett Theater’s outdoor staging of The Seagull is a must-see production.
SECOND OPINION: May 24th Raleigh, NC IndyWeek review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 4 of 5 stars): https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/bartlett-theaters-unorthodox-the-seagull-flies-higher-than-any-weve-seen/Content?oid=6369977 and May 17th mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-seagull/Event?oid=6046644; and May 23rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article152108172.html.
The Bartlett Theater presents THE SEAGULL, adapted by Anya Reiss, at 6:30 p.m. May 29 and June 3 and 4 at 5612 Cabe Ford Rd., Durham, North Carolina 27705.
TICKETS: $26.87 with service fee.
BOX OFFICE: 919-808-2203, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2939537.
SHOW: http://bartletttheater.org/productions/the-seagull/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/107358756500844/.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: https://www.facebook.com/pg/BartlettTheater/videos/.
PRESENTER: http://bartletttheater.org/, https://www.facebook.com/BartlettTheater/, and https://twitter.com/bartletttheater.
The Seagull (1896 play): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seagull (Wikipedia).
Anton Chekhov (Russian playwright and writer of short stories, 1860-1904): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton_Chekhov (Wikipedia).
The Seagull (2012 adaptation): https://www.oberonbooks.com/chekhov-reiss.html (Oberon Books Ltd.).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: http://www.segalcentre.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/The-Seagull-STUDY-GUIDE.pdf (Segal Centre for Performing Arts in Montréal, Québec).
Anya Reiss (British playwright): https://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/client/anya-reiss (Curtis Brown bio) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anya_Reiss (Wikipedia).
Jonathan Bohun Brady (Durham, NC director and founding artistic director Bartlett Theater): https://www.facebook.com/jbbrady (Facebook page).
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor, director, and member of the board of directors of Arts Access, Inc., which makes the arts accessible to people with disabilities. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.