Village Idiot: On “The Seagull”

“When the curtain rises on that little three-walled room, when those mighty geniuses, those high-priests of art, show us people in the act of eating, drinking, loving, walking, and wearing their coats, and attempt to extract a moral from their insipid talk; when playwrights give us under a thousand different guises the same, same, same old stuff, then I must needs run from it, as Maupassant ran from the Eiffel Tower that was about to crush him by its vulgarity.”

With these words, Constantine taunts our inner skeptic, who yawns at even our most thespian of thoughts—us, the theatregoers. We sit and watch, season after season, waiting for that show or two worth watching. We eye-roll at this or that choice, lovingly palpate at another, glaze over too often. We smuggle Twix bars and corn nuts—a ration of respite from length, arduous rot, the same crap, yet again.

But also, and Peter Hinton and the Segal Centre’s production of The Seagull know this and blurts it out: theatre audiences are old. Dying, actually. My date to this Sunday’s performance couldn’t help but notice, as the rest of us younger folks do, how “Everyone is so ancient.” The play jeeringly estimated them at 60, or 65; the truth is they are more around 70, or older. Noticing this, she admitted she might have worn something slightly less enticing, had she known.

Meanwhile, though, and in keeping with Chekhov’s insistence, Peter Hinton’s brilliant adaptation pushed for something I had never seen before, and we were glued to every snarky bit of it from the first wink.

Tearing at the text’s original fabric, but surely with a remaining reverence for it’s time-tested bones, this Seagull is very much Canadian Theatre, and a very bright direction for it, too. It is, refreshingly, neck deep in the worries of our current artistic zeitgeist, namely with the binary that cordons that landscape and always remains relevant: the old vs. the young, the entitled vs. the green, the Us and the Them.

This, of course, is central to this bit of Chekhov, a kind of Russian aristocracy of dysfunction—more underhanded comments and wordy slaps in the face than you can imagine. The schitzoid and dystemic children are still overdramatizing; the embittered, entrenched elders are largely as condescending and selfish as ever.

But where we might have had heavy turn-of-the-century woolens and sombre lakeside mannerisms, we god square, regional, Ontarian middle-age, star-actress furs and thrifty, skinny duds. We got our own artsy tug of wars at a fever pitch. And where we might have heard of Nekrasoff, the royal theatres, and classical orchestrations, we got Jian Ghomeshi and Saturday Night magazine—the NAC, Stratford and Stevie Nicks

The final result could not, for me, be more stirring. Well acted, expertly crafted, terribly well adapted, and cheekily, subversively blocked—this latest production of The Seagull actually has me excited about Chekhov again. It’s heavy with the meaty stuff all of us artsy types ebb in and out of as we age and choose our communities. What’s more, it colours me very impressed at what the Segal Centre has managed to put together, still a few seasons from the end of its first decade.

Danielle Desormeaux, Michel Perron, Diane D'Aquila, Lucy Peacock, Marcel Jeannin, Krista Colosimo, Patrick McManus_Photo AndrÇe Lanthier

The result, ultimately, was that even the old folks in there with us were way into it. Nina, summoned by Constantine’s lamenting accordion for their theatrical unveiling, stands atop a haphazard pile of deckchairs in a white dress and a blue cagoule, and we are all transfixed. The actors, too.

The chairs have been—figuratively for us, literally for those in costume—pulled out from under us, but all our eyes are glued to this very strange display. The whole troupe sits akimbo and something new is happening. More questions are being asked than answered, as the play itself will gander. Theatre is being made, I’ll melodramatically insist, and even the septuagenarians are down with that.

And that’s what good, important theatre can make—something that changes. The “same” stuff imposing its new shapes. I hope to see it again, actually, and know it’ll be different.

Luckily, this production, uncharacteristically for these snowbird months—when many part-time Floridians are too far South to attend—is doing so well it’s getting extended through till next Wednesday, February 19. Sometimes, the good stuff does last.

See it, whether you’re old or young. Thank me later.

Peter Hinton’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull runs until February 19 at the Segal Centre.

Photos courtesy of the Segal Centre by Andrée Lanthier.

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