Seagull at UCSB Performing Arts Theatre, Sunday, February 15

Irwin and Libby Appel's Production of Chekhov Classic Takes Wing

Lydia Rae Benko as Nina Mikhailovna Zarechnaya and Merlin Huff as Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov in <em>Seagull</em>.

The fever dream of modern Russian art has no greater symbol than Anton Chekhov’s Seagull. Once this bird of change has flown, nothing can ever be the same. In a new production of Seagull at UCSB, a baker’s dozen B.F.A. students have taken Chekhov’s paradigm-shifting masterpiece and made it fly. Merely by performing Seagull, the ensemble has dared something that has humbled countless companies in the past. But through some extraordinary collective alchemy, this production transforms Libby Appel’s wonderfully actable new Seagull text into a living and breathing show, filled with emotion, pathos, and serendipity. Did the pressure of having two Appels to please push them over the top? Whoever it was that demanded the impossible from these young actors deserves our thanks, because they have delivered.

Natasha Lloyd (l) as Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina & Merlin Huff as Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov in "Seagull"

In the showpiece role of Arkadina, the terminally selfish and narcissistic actress/mother, Natasha Lloyd is splendid. Her accent, her mannerisms, her timing, and her address all imply the same thing-this woman has lost her soul. Watch as the eternally self-aggrandizing and withholding parent perpetually delays affection and trust. Listen for the sound of a gunshot in the distance. The blocking is at once natural and expressive, full of nuance and barely noticeable.

As in the original text, every character inhabits an entire emotional world full of dread and longing. This was Chekhov’s genius-to peel the facade off the living arrangements of his countrymen in order to lay bare their attitudes and expose the psychic turmoil beneath. As Masha, Joelle Golda is terrifically warm and vulnerable, giving the play’s crucial opening sentiment-“I’m in mourning for my life. I’m unhappy.”-depth and resonance. Charlie Faith plays the writer Trigorin without a trace of self-consciousness. This Trigorin slips in and out of relationships with the same nonchalance with which he casts his fishing line or reclines on a sofa. David Santana makes Doctor Dorn fully believable as the other desirable man in this overheated hothouse of a lakefront estate.

Nevertheless, three further performances stand out as particularly successful. Matthew Horn restores Pyotr Nikolayevich Sorin to his rightful position at the center of the action, giving a truly Russian interpretation to the displaced patriarch. Merlin Huff is a sight to behold as the inflamed artistic rebel son Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov. His strange fits of passion enliven nearly every scene. And finally there is the exquisite agony and equally strange journey of Nina Mikhailovna Zarechnaya as wholeheartedly and passionately rendered by Lydia Rae Benko. In many ways, this is the role of the modern theater, in which the ingenue is undone by her aestheticized yearning for fame and immortality. When Nina is called upon to play what is in essence her future self, ravaged by time and failed expectations, all actresses are challenged to the utmost. On Sunday, when she returned for a much-deserved curtain call after this final test of her acting mettle, Benko could be seen to be still in tears-presumably of heartache in character, but also joy for herself and for her collaborators. This Seagull is the real thing-an original modern shot that should be heard round the world.


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