Ah, Seagull, how do we love thee? It’s time once again to count the ways. Anton Chekhov’s Seagull remains the quintessential modern play, by turns funny and profound, absurd and unbearably sad. Dwelling on the question of what theater is versus what it should be, Seagull features a quartet of creative characters: two women who act and two men who write. They live through generational conflict over the nature and purpose of drama, yet the story never loses sight of the emotional stakes of their struggles. Friends and family are every bit as vivid and real as this core group, and each character lives passionately onstage.
This excellent production at UCSB featured Ethan Kim as Kostya, the lovestruck young man whose mother, Arkadina (Catherine Ballantyne), torments (mostly) and comforts (occasionally) him. Kirsten Høj played Nina, the radiant young actress who disappoints Kostya and threatens Arkadina by falling for her partner, the successful writer Trigorin (Harut Simonian). Lucas Cheng was memorable as the doctor, Dorn, and Milo Marsden made Arkadina’s brother Sorin a strong figure despite his doubts and self-pity.
There are no small parts in Seagull. For example, Val Murillo carved an unforgettable portrait of frustrated passion out of Masha, the farmer’s daughter whose love for Kostya goes unrequited. Matte Kranz also gave an excellent performance as Medvedenko, the schoolteacher who pursues and marries Masha despite knowing he’s not her first choice. Maison “Bub” Bray got some of the evening’s biggest laughs as Masha’s father, the farm manager Shamrayev, and as his wife, Polina, Ashley Beeson came to the fore at crucial moments.
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Ultimately, the test of any Seagull production lies in how visceral the central conflicts become. On that count, this production scored high marks. Arkadina’s verbal cruelty towards Kostya stung — how many children could endure a mother’s assertion that they are a “nobody”? Yet moments later, Catherine Ballantyne wrapped Ethan Kim convincingly in her arms. Ballantyne’s physical performance in this show was marvelous. The way she threw Harut Simonian around to render Trigorin a human “dishrag” was a tour de force.
Simonian, too, had transcendent moments, particularly the fateful scene in which Trigorin rides his anger, turning it into a tool to seduce Nina. Kirsten Høj, immersed fully in that role, gave Nina all the appeal and vulnerability that make her character’s choices fundamental to the plot. In perhaps the most challenging Seagull role of all, Ethan Kim was splendid. He was strict when he needed to be, as when denouncing Arkadina for her narcissism, and emotionally broken when that was appropriate, especially in one premonitory, wordless sequence near the end.
Seating the audience on either side of the action proved integral to the design’s stunning overall effect. Congratulations to the entire team on a moving return to live indoor performance.