"If you could only know what it is to have lost everything … . Every hope has deserted me."
That a Russian writer penned these lines in 1895 might not surprise us. That the current U.S. president campaigned to restore hope in 2008 gives reason to seek relevance in Anton Chekhov's The Seagull.
Quintessence Theatre Group certainly thinks so. Since 2010, this fledgling company has dedicated itself to contemporary productions of classic works. Its innovative stagings include this season's flapper-era Venetian Twins and a riveting rendition of Plato's Apology, during which the small space at Mt. Airy's Sedgwick Theatre boomed like an ancient amphitheater.
The Seagull's timeless themes fit Quintessence's mission perfectly. Chekhov's older characters fret over aging and senescence, the young struggle to find their identities, and the ensemble staves off boredom by pursuing each other through a daisy chain of unrequited romance. Medvedenko (Alexander Harvey) loves Masha (Julia Frey), who pines for young writer Konstantin (Jamison Foreman), who chases Nina (Rachel Brodeur), who falls for famous novelist Trigorin (Josh Carpenter), who has a long-standing affair with Konstantin's mother, Arkadina (Janis Dardaris).
Although the play is set on a Russian country estate, costume designer Jane Casanave dresses the characters in modern suits, blue jeans, riding boots, and hoodies. Steven Cahill's original score blends strings and piano with electronica pop.
However, the uneven cast and Alexander Burns' direction reduces Chekhov's tragicomedy to a soap opera. Carpenter's Trigorin meanders about the set like an autistic savant. William Zielinski and Marcia Saunders bring their Barrymore-winning talents to minor roles; along with Randall McCann, this trio of hangers-on and servants upstage the principal cast. Dardaris — who, unlike the aging actress Arkadina, has otherwise transitioned with grace from ingénue into matronly roles — bursts into manufactured histrionics. Frey's awkward performance mutes the heart of a woman who in the first lines exclaims, "I'm in mourning for my life."
All subtlety likewise eludes this production. As does laughter. And compassion. Stripping these elements leaves little but the sense — aptly rendered — that there is "something unnatural about country life."
Only Brodeur comes full circle; although lifeless in the first two acts (when her role requires youthful zest), in the final moments she becomes the seagull, shot on a whim by a bored man, reduced by shame and disgrace, but ultimately embodying the possibility of hope to rise again as a firebird.
If only the entire production soared so beautifully.