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Director Jack Read opens The Wheel Theatre Company’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull with the successful writer Trigorin (Thomas Shuman) narrating a series of letters from Florence in which he describes his faint enthusiasm for Pazzi’s statue of Dante and disdain for Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” He also provides a month-by-month record of the creative process and frequent setbacks he encounters as he writes a new play, a four-act composition featuring a cast of six men, four women, and views of a lake. As he worries whether his play is a drama or a comedy, it becomes quite apparent that his work-in-progress is itself The Seagull—Read has taken the text directly from Chekhov’s correspondence.
Soon enough, we arrive at the more familiar opening scenes of the first act. The young experimental playwright, Konstantin (Aron Spellane), son of Trigorin’s lover, Arkadina (Olivia Haller), is premiering his new work for the residents of the bucolic estates that overlook said lake. Trigorin does not merely embody the conventions of naturalism and melodrama that Konstantin wants to overthrow with his new writing, nor is he just a rival for the affections of Arkadina, or his muse, Nina (Gracie Eda Baker). Read’s interpretation of Trigorin as Chekhov’s self-portrait has added a new level of plays nested within plays, and the internal references have multiplied.
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Spellane renders well a portrait of the artist as a moody adolescent, displaying alternately effusive and histrionically self-destructive behaviors as if that’s what is expected of him as a revolutionary artist. Meanwhile, Shuman’s Trigorin is so compelled to record anything that can be incorporated into his next story that he has become the archetype of a successful writer—a role he neither much reflects upon nor rejects, for fame has its hedonistic privileges. If Konstantin is remembered 10,000 years hence, it will only be as one of Trigorin’s characters, and in just the sort of play he despises. The narrative threads are looped and twisted like a Möbius strip.
Baker, as Nina, gives a spirited performance of Konstantin’s post-apocalyptic play-within-a-play in the first act, a joyful parody of the stream-of-consciousness, interpretative movement of days of Beatnik glory complete with Konstantin tapping away on a conga. The response is particularly funny: Not only does Medvedenko (Amber James) pine for a play about a school teacher, but Polina (Elizabeth Floyd) asks Nina how she was able to memorize all her lines.
Masha (Madeline Mooney) is a hilarious study in disillusion, a lethargic goth in a ragged black sweater, ever ready with a snuff box and a flask. Mooney has some fine comic turns trying to keep up with Arkadina’s yoga routine in one scene, and calling numbers in a game of lotto in another. James is a perfect foil, a perky but socially unaware school teacher and suitor. Colton Needles, playing the country Lothario who also practices medicine, ups the production’s physical comedy by being horizontal as often as possible. Adrian Iglesias has some amusing moments as the scowling estate manager who can be alternately practical and petty while also proving to be the most genuine arts enthusiast.
The visual design of the production is modern and largely functional—the focus is clearly on the story and performers—but Elizabeth Floyd has created a wonderfully theatrical rendering of the seagull Konstantin kills from papier-mâché and chicken wire. No costume designer is credited, but Arkadina’s floral dress is eye-popping, Nina’s dresses are elegantly bohemian, and Axandre Oge’s Sorin wears a loud outfit of blue plaid pants, a polka dot bowtie, red suspenders, and a pink shirt, which wonderfully illustrates his attempt to become known as an eccentric in his retirement, after a career defined by regularity.
Despite Chekhov’s use of naturalism to parody what many saw as the overuse of obscure symbolism by his era’s avant-gardists, Read gives Konstantin’s rebellion against theatrical convention the final word, turning the end of both his brief literary career and his life, into a solemnly communal ritual send-off in which ripped manuscripts flutter to the floor.
2438 18th St. NW. $20. (202) 462-7833. dcartscenter.org.