Whether torn by love (Masha, Treplev, and Nina), antagonized by the unstoppable march of aging (Arkadina and Sorin), beset by ideas of their own mediocrity (Treplev, again, and Trigorin), or burnt to cinders by the cruelty of their loved ones (Medvedenko and, once again, Treplev), everybody suffers in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. The Old Globe and University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program’s recent production, directed by Brenda DeVita, used Carol Rocamora’s translation from the early-90s to stage a performance of this century-old “comedy.” The production’s high quality stuns, considering this was a student work commanding $10 per ticket.
That Chekhov considered this a comedy is baffling. Scholars and critics have bent over backwards upholding that designation. Some have said that The Seagull’s comedy derives from the characters’ collective choice to live in pain, each oblivious to the adoration and affirmation of others. Only the audience sees this sad state of affairs for what it is. Dramatic irony that may well be — and a hallmark of keen satire — but we can’t forget that comedies are ultimtely tales of restoration, which The Seagull is not. When the lights go down, all lies in tatters.
USD’s Seagull summons a few laughs, mostly by way of Dorn, the good country doctor who consorts with his neighbor’s wife and blithely suggests Valerian drops as a panacea. Masha’s melodramatic sufferings amuse as well. Chekhov’s skewering of theater culture, stage divas, and anxious playwrights is perhaps sharper now than it was a hundred years ago; especially in light of the sometimes ludicrous heights attained on stage since The Seagull opened.
Still, it’s hard to see The Seagull as anything but tragic. Perhaps the intimacy of central staging at the Studio Theatre makes the characters’ pain too immediate. Its humor is a deep, dark, humor which might easily be confused with terror. When Nina knocks at Treplev’s window in the final act, it might as well be a nightmare creature waiting to burst in from the cold, dark night.
Anton Chekhov must have been twisted and cynical indeed.