Review: A Star Director Takes a Back Seat in ‘The Seagull’

Konstantin, the aspiring playwright in Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” dreams of inventing “new forms” for the theater. Sensitive, moody and a bit ridiculous, Konstantin isn’t exactly a mouthpiece for the great Russian author, although Chekhov was himself out to innovate and reform. His chamber drama, filled with unheroic, frustrated figures propelled by life’s bitter ironies rather than melodramatic flourishes, proved too much for the play’s first audience to bear.

Now a canonical work, “The Seagull” remains devilishly tricky to pull off, however, not because Chekhov’s theatrical form still confounds, but because of the difficulty of corralling an acting ensemble to play off each other with naturalness and ease while slipping between Chekhov’s shifting and overlapping emotional registers.

In a surprisingly traditional staging of “The Seagull” that opened on Monday at the Berlin Schaubühne, Thomas Ostermeier ceded the floor to the actors, in a production that was free of the directorial interventions or distractions that classic works are often subjected to on German stages. Instead, this production largely came to life with the purest and most economical of theatrical means: the individual and collective performances of the 10-person cast. (The Schaubühne staging is also far tamer than “The Seagull/Woodstock, NY,” Thomas Bradshaw’s irreverent adaptation, which is transposed to the Catskill Mountains and is currently playing Off Broadway.)

That approach may seem surprising for Ostermeier, a director best known to New York audiences for his furious and exuberantly messy reimaginings of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and “Hamlet” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But Ostermeier’s more recent work has largely gone in a tamer, more conventional direction. And so it was with this “Seagull,” which had precious little to do with discovering new forms.

There are some updates in this modern-dress production. In the opening scene, Masha, a secondary character who is hopelessly in love with Konstantin, vaped. At one point, the loud engine of a plane roared overhead — the only time the outside world intruded on the characters’ country idyll.

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Ostermeier has allowed the Schaubühne’s ensemble of actors to tweak their lines and make them more natural, or contemporary, and this production also includes some rather blunt new meta-theatrical dialogue. (“Why perform the classics nowadays? They sell well.”) The first-act play-within-the-play that Konstantin writes to demonstrate new forms has been rewritten by the actor playing that role, Laurenz Laufenberg. Despite these emendations, this “Seagull” remains surprisingly faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of Chekhov’s original.

The most gripping thing about the staging is the space in which it unfolds, an area dominated by a massive plane tree. The seating in the auditorium has been reconfigured and the audience is arrayed around the actors, who perform in front of the imposing tree. Occasionally an actor lies on, or hangs from, its thick branches. Several characters hide behind its mighty trunk; another urinates in it.

The actors frequently got up close and personal with the audience members, circling the small stage, or tearing down the aisles to enter or exit, achieving a degree of intimacy that was exciting but not without risk. Experiencing the performances at such close range meant that both their merits and their shortcomings were magnified.

Such a gambit only stood a chance of succeeding with a top-flight troupe of actors. However, the cast, drawn largely from the theater’s permanent ensemble, left a mixed impression. To their credit, the cast showed remarkable cohesion — and things never got monotonous — over the duration of a very chatty show, set in a single location. But there was only one standout performance, that of Joachim Meyerhoff as Trigorian, the older writer who ends up running away with the aspiring actress Nina. Meyerhoff, one of the Schaubühne’s finest actors, injected fresh life into his character, a popular second-rater who probably suspects that he’s a hack. His performance was shot through with twitching, neurotic energy, humor, and self-deprecating charm. Whenever he wasn’t onstage, the production glowed less brightly.

Laufenberg overdid Konstantin’s temper tantrums in Act I, but found a convincingly pained and broken register for the closing scene. The women in the cast fared less well. As Arkadina, an aging starlet and Konstantin’s mother, Stephanie Eidt’s histrionic performance was pitched halfway between Blanche DuBois and Norma Desmond. As Nina, Alina Vimbai Strähler never fully inhabited her complex and demanding role; her journey from wide-eyed optimism to crushing disillusion seemed largely superficial.

“There are no new forms here, but simply bad behavior,” Arkadina comments after seeing her son’s play. The only time you could accuse this production of bad behavior is when Meyerhoff takes a leak against the tree. For the majority of its intermissionless 165 minutes, this “Seagull” is handsome and skillfully rendered, but curiously bloodless, much like the stuffed specimen at the play’s end.

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