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Towards the beginning of Chekhov's The Seagull, the young idealist Konstantin stages a play he has written for a critical group of houseguests. The monologue consists largely of pretentious, melodramatic schlock; the audience reserves its praise for Nina, Konstantin's bright-eyed and innocent sweetheart, who does all the performing. The playwright-within-a-play's honest and interesting intentions of reinventing drama get lost amid his overwriting. Only the contemplative old local doctor, Dorn, discerns any promise in the play's pseudo-intellectual rhetoric: "There was something in it... It was so fresh, unaffected."
Perhaps the Cornerstone Theater Company's production of "California Seagull," a recent adaptation of Chekhov's classic relocated to the Golden State, deliberately reproduces all the traits of Konstantin's play. Maybe it's a multidimensional meta-commentary on the original which adds new facets to the nexus between fact and fiction. Or maybe it's just an enthusiastic and imaginative enterprise that gets a little carried away with its "alternadrama" image. Whichever way you look at it, "California Seagull" suffers from an overdose of avant-garde. But there's something in it. And Nina is excellent.
The Cornerstone production relies on a kind of unabashed suspension of belief. The show revels self-consciously in the process of theater, paring down all the accessories to focus on the very act of playing a part. The costumes are unobstrusive--which gets complicated since all the cast members play two different parts. (At times, a pair of glasses or a raincoat serves as the only distinction between two completely different characters.) Lingering meathooks from the set of the Hasty Pudding Theater's other ongoing production, "Slaughter City," glower alarmingly over the stage, while "California Seagull's" only set consists of a low wooden platform which serves alternately as a stage, a dock, a bed and a desk. All this minimalism suggests an appeal to raw drama, a going back to basics--even a reinvention of drama a la Konstantin.
As with Konstantin's play, there's nothing wrong with the idea. In fact, it's fresh and unaffected, to coin a phrase. Alison Carey's analogy of a vineyard in Napa for a rural estate outside Moscow, and of Hollywood glitterati for Tsarist Russia's belle lettristes gives the play a contemporary edge without sacrificing any of its subtlety. The primitive set places the dialogue and acting center stage. But like Chekhov's antihero, the Cornerstone takes it all too far. At one point, the director, Bill Rauch, injects a gratuitous mime sequence, in which Konstantin (or Cam, as he is now called) jumps into an imaginary lake and wades laboriously away to the tune of pre-recorded gurgles. Similarly, although the adaptation's reduction of the cast from 10 to five works fine for the first three acts, in the final climactic scene four of the characters keep having to freeze on the spot, while the fifth changes personae by fiddling frantically with his costume.
Nor do the constant changes of character do justice to the often excellent acting. Only Page Leong (Nina and Masha) really seems comfortable with the constant transitions, managing to define and distinguish her two roles without overacting. Shishir Kurup solves this conundrum by hamming up Sorin so that he can play Taper/Trigorin with deadpan nonchalance. Christopher Liam Moore, on the other hand, makes little distinction at all between Cam/Konstantin and Simon/Medviedenko. As with other aspects of the play, enormous promise, here in the form of fine acting, is ultimately undermined by taking dramatic conceits like these schizoid duos too far.
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