Review: New Steppenwolf ensemble theater sparkles with seagull in which everyone is unhappy

It’s a Chekhov play, so…..everybody’s in love with the wrong person. Everyone is unhappy. Everyone lives in the country but longs to live in the city.

The new production of the Steppenwolf Theater gull– adapted, translated and directed by Yasen Peyankov – is set in a large country house in the Russian countryside. The time is indefinite and the dialogue modernized. But it’s still Chekhov, so everyone’s unhappy.

gull feels comfortable in Steppenwolf’s new ensemble theater; Round designed with six rows of seats, all seats are good seats. Stage layout inevitably keeps scenic design minimal, but Todd Rosenthal’s sets make inventive use of space. A circular shape in the inlaid wooden floor rises to a stage or platform when Nina (Caroline Neff) appears in aspiring writer Konstantin’s (Namir Smallwood) new play in the first act. A floral-shaped overhead sculpt then flies down to envelop Nina as she performs. In the second act, the platform rises again to become a large round table for playing cards and eating. This use of hydraulics makes the stage-in-the-round more versatile. Dramatic lighting design is by Marcus Doshi and sound design and original music by Pornchanok Kanchanabanca.

That gull Ensemble. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

gullafter Anton Chekhov’s play from 1895, The Seagull, dramatizes a conflict between the romantic writing of popular novelist Boris Trigorin (Joey Slotnick) and the abstract or symbolist plays Constantine writes in his quest to create new forms of theatre. In Act I, Trigorin describes how obsessed he is with writing story after story and can’t wait to start writing again, while in Act II Konstantin is even more frustrated as a writer than in Act I. Chekhov called this play defiant of its tragic elements as a comedy, but Steppenwolf doesn’t renounce the comedic aspect with its poster showing a bird, a gun and a BANG tape pouring out of the gun barrel.

There is also a contradiction in the acting style of the brilliant Nina compared to the successful but fading actress Irina Nikolaevna Arkadina, Konstantin’s mother (played by Lusia Strus). Jeff Perry, one of the founding members of Steppenwolf, plays Peter Nikolaevich Sorin, who owns the estate and is Madame Arkadina’s brother and Konstantin’s loving uncle. (Scott Jaeck will step in as Sorin from May 24th to June 5th.)

As in every Russian play of this period, other household members are part of the story. Masha (a goth Karen Rodriguez) is the daughter of Shamraev (Keith Kupferer), a retired lieutenant and manager of Sorin’s estate. Sandra Marquez plays Polina, Shamraev’s wife. Masha’s suitor and later husband Semyon (Jon Hudson Odom), a school teacher, is also Sorin’s caretaker.

Karen Rodriguez and Sandra Marquez. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

“Why do you always wear black?” Semjon asks Masha at the beginning of the first act. “Because I mourn for my life,” she replies. “I’m unhappy,” and that’s what sets the mood for the performance.

Chekhov’s four acts are combined into two in this production, which lasts 2.5 hours with a 15-minute intermission. The first act is set in summer, with everyone (except Masha) wearing light-colored robes (costume design by Ana Kuzmanic). The second act takes place some time later – Semyon and Masha are married and now have a baby – and the characters wear dark clothes. The mood is darker, too, as Trigorin, Irina’s lover, now falls in love and longs for Nina, who also loves him, and abandons Konstantin, who has long since abandoned Masha.

The dialogue in Peyanko’s adaptation is sharper, crisper and more modern than the original. Staging and costuming suggest an indefinite semi-modern. A few modern touches – Irina’s heels, Konstantin’s pen, ready-made cigarettes and lighters – suggest a modern era. However, the crew members are disguised as Russian serfs.

Caroline Neff and Namir Smallwood. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Did I mention the seagull? It’s a symbolic presence from the start when Nina tells Konstantin that her family has forbidden her to come there. “They say you’re all a bunch of bohemians… they’re afraid I’ll be an actress… but something is pulling me to this place, to this lake, like a seagull… My heart is full of you.” Later, there’s a dead one seagull and a stuffed seagull.

The cast is a mix of newer members of the Steppenwolf ensemble such as Rodriguez, Marquez and Smallwood, as well as some veteran actors such as Perry, Kupferer and Slotnick. Strus, who plays Irina, is also a Chicago stage veteran who worked with Peyankov’s European Repertory Company (a theater company I still miss for their bold and dynamic productions). The notable achievements in gull come from Smallwood as a soulful writer, as well as Neff, Strus and Slotnick.

This is the first production at the new 400-seat Ensemble Theater honoring Helen Zell, the centerpiece of the recently opened Liz and Eric Lefkofsky Arts and Education Center, built just south of the original Steppenwolf Theater. The building design is by Gordon Gill FAIA of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. Theater design and acoustics are by Charcoalblue.

gull continues through June 12 at Steppenwolf’s Ensemble Theater, 1650 N. Halsted St. The running time is 2.5 hours with a break. Tickets range from $20 to $68 for Tuesday through Sunday performances; buy them here. You will be required to show your vaccination/refresher card upon entry and it is mandatory to wear a mask over your nose and mouth while in the theater building.

For more information on this and other productions, visit www.theatreinticago.com.

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