The award-winning Chance Theater takes on Chekhov’s The Seagull with admirable results, the production featuring excellent performances, astute direction, and a gorgeous design.  Then again, what else would you expect from Orange County’s finest intimate theater?

That being said, I have to confess, I’m still not a big Chekhov fan. The classic Russian playwright is a bit too talky for my tastes, and a bit too light on plot for me, or at least on onstage plot.  At the same time, Chekhov directed and performed by pros, as The Seagull is here, or as The Cherry Orchard was a few years back at the Mark Taper Forum, can be surprisingly funny and often quite touching.  Though I’m not eager to rush out and see more Chekhov, at least not for a while, I don’t regret seeing director Tony Vezner’s take on this 19th Century classic.

Any play that features a Diva with a capital D as its leading lady is sure to offer some great scenes and dialog, and The Seagull has its most vibrant moments when aging stage star Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina (Karen Webster) takes center stage. Arkadina has a younger lover (what else would you expect from an aging Diva?), the handsome novelist Boris Alexeyevich Trigorin (Jonathon Lamer), and a petulant son, would-be playwright Konstantin (Dan Flapper), a manic-depressive sort whose plays are the kind of artsy-fartsy messes that still abound in “experimental theater.”  Konstantin pines over actress-in-training Nina (Jennifer Ruckman), a beauty who finds herself attracted to the far more dashing Trigorin. Meanwhile, 1896-style goth girl Masha (Melanie Gable) turns her back on her sweet but hotness-challenged suitor, the schoolteacher Medvedenko (Jara Jones), in order to moon over Konstantin.  Add to this bunch Arkadina’s ailing older brother Sorin (Glenn Koppel), Sorin’s estate manager Shamraev (Lewis R. Crouse II) and his bird of a wife Polina (Toni Beckman), physician Dorn (John Bolen), a workman named Yakov (Josh Aguilar), and a nameless servant girl (Sohina Sidhu), and you have plenty of characters to keep track of, to say the least.

Over the past few years, The Chance has built a resident troupe of actors composed of official Chance Theater Resident Company Members (Crouse, Flapper, Jones, Ruckman, and Webster) and unofficial Chance Regulars like Lamer and Koppel, each new production providing an opportunity to see favorite performers in new roles.  The Seagull is no exception, and among its greatest pleasures is discovering new sides to the talents of the abovementioned actors.

Ruckman’s performances in Frozen, Jesus Hates Me, particularly Rabbit Hole have already proven her one of the Southland’s most gifted actresses, and her work as The Seagull’s heroine with dreams of stardom (and love) in her eyes is no exception. Flapper crosses over from musical roles to a touching dramatic turn as a writer whose frustrations turn him to despondency.  Webster, the Chance’s answer to Meryl Streep, shows yet another side to her talents as a self-centered stage star who proves that preoccupation with age and beauty is hardly a 21st Century invention. Lamer too does such fine work as part gentleman/part louse/all heartbreaker Trigorin that it’s no wonder Arkadina remains hooked on the cad.

It’s refreshing to see the always excellent Jones in a sympathetic role for a change, and equally fun to watch the deliciously gloomy Gable find new ways to put down his character. Koppel is a quirky standout as the increasingly infirm Sorin. Bolen, Crouse and Beckman provide solid support, with Aguilar and Sidhu doing nicely in their Chance debuts.

At his least interesting, Chekhov seems to me to be much talk about very little, and I never have figured out the darned seagull metaphor (first alive, then shot, finally stuffed).  Also, having dramatic events occur between scenes may have been revolutionary in Chekhov’s time, but does nothing to keep attention levels high.  On the other hand, the Russian playwright does write great roles, particularly for women, and when he is being funny (e.g. Arkadina’s comments about her age, Masha’s doom and gloom proclamations), his writing seems scarcely a decade old.

Shaun L. Motley’s gorgeous set design, all circles, arcs, and straight lines, allows for effective scene changes from outdoors to indoors, fall colors predominating. It’s also the kind of scenic design that would have been impossible when the Chance was doing pairs of shows in rep and sets needed to be struck and put up in an hour or so on a several-times-a-week basis. Jeff Brewer’s lighting design is a stunning match for Motley’s set.  Christopher Scott Murillo has designed marvelous late nineteenth century costumes, with particular mention due Nina’s and Arkadina’s gowns.  Peter Bayne’s excellent sound completes the production’s all-around outstanding design package.

With this, only the Chance’s second Chekhov production, fans of the Russian playwright are sure to be in pre-Revolutionary heaven. As for non-fans, well, even they will find much to appreciate in this first rate production. One expects nothing less from the Chance.

The Chance Theater, 5555 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.

–Steven Stanley
September 26, 2009
                                                                       Photos: Doug Catiller

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