Washington — A Seagull Play by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Peter Sellars. Russian playwright Anton Chekhov has become an icon in the theater. Some directors approach his work with sable-trimmed reverence, some with romantic intensity.
But iconoclast Peter Sellars, director of the American National Theater, approaches Chekhov playfully. So his controversial new Kennedy Center production of Chekhov's ``The Seagull'' is startling. It's like no Chekhov play you've ever seen before: lasers, starkly abstract sets, a grand piano on stage churning out Scriabin for four acts like music for a silent movie. And although the play is set in the 1890s on a Russian estate by a lake, both costumes and sets are a scramble of periods.
Sellars treats the play much of the time like a Victorian melodrama, occasionally like a French farce, but rarely like the bittersweet Russian tragedy it is. The result is a ``Seagull'' that sometimes soars, and sometimes flaps and caws, but is ultimately shot down in the fourth act. This ``Seagull'' is often innovative, daring, and exciting, but it is a disaster in that fourth and most important act. The capriciousness of what has gone before robs that act, with its offstage suicide, of its serio usness and therefore of its tragedy.
Still, there is much worth seeing in this fresh production, particularly its extraordinary acting. Colleen Dewhurst gives a dazzling performance as the Russian actress Irina Arkadina, egocentric and vain as a white peacock, whose mockery of her son Treplov's plays helps precipitate his suicide. Dewhurst is an intense actress, famous for her O'Neill heroines, who turns down the volume a bit for Chekhov. Her Arkadina is elegant, wry, tenacious as a tigress with her lover, the successful writer Trigorin (D avid Strathairn) and with her son, the unsuccessful writer Treplov (Kevin Spacey). Dewhurst's grasp of the character is consistently fine, even in that fourth act which shipwrecks the rest of the cast.
The heart of what Sellars has retitled ``A Seagull'' is found in Trigorin's speech about an idea for a short story that struck him: about a beautiful girl who lives by a lake and loves the lake like a seagull. ``But by chance there comes a man who sees her and for nothing better to do destroys her like the seagull.'' Trigorin tells the story to Nina, (Kelly McGillis) the lovely young girl Treplov is hopelessly in love with. She later runs off with Trigorin, who abandons her, destroying her life and her career as an actress. In the final act of the play Treplov takes his own life in despair.
But the tragic symbolism of the seagull seems to be spoofed in this production when Treplov brings Nina the gull he has shot. This gull is absurd; it seems to be made of terrycloth feathers. It is a comic prop, like a rubber chicken. The audience laughs. But when it laughs over that symbol on which Chekhov has based his tragedy, this destroys the last and most important act.
Aside from Dew hurst, the casting of this ``Seagull'' is uneven. Kelly McGillis, (who became a sudden star this year as the Amish widow in the film ``Witness'') gives a luminous, breathless performance as Nina for all but the last act. In that act she seems more distraught then destroyed. Paul Winfield, in his juiciest role since the movie ``Sounder,'' plays Dr. Dorn, the alter ego of Chekhov, who was a physician as well as a writer; he brings Chekhov's compassionate tolerance to the role in an excellent performance, but
he too is defeated by Act 4.
Henderson Forsythe plays Sorin, Arkadina's ailing brother, with warmth and depth of feeling. But Kevin Spacey seems miscast as the sensitive, bitter son Treplov; he plays him dryly, without the necessary passion, so it is difficult to sympathize with him. Another pivotal role, that of the compelling, seductive Trigorin, is merely suave in David Strathairn's interpretation. The rest of an interesting cast includes Priscilla Smith as the unhappy Masha, who always wears black because she's ``in mourning fo r my life;'' Jan Triska as her schoolteacher husband; Tony Mockus as Sorin's overseer, Shamrayev; and Kathleen Nolan as the overseer's wife.
Sellars as a director also treats color as a major character. In this ``Seagull'' George Tsypin's major set is a huge backdrop wall drenched in vivid colors like scarlet and fuschia, resembling an enormous painting by Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko. The stark sets and vivid colors put Chekhov's wonderful words in bold relief. Some of the other Sellars signatures we first saw in his hit ``The Count of Monte Cristo'' turn up here, too: asides to the audience, and live music on stage. But this mopey mu sic, by Alexander Scriabin, is not the asset that the string quartet playing Beethoven's electrifying ``Kreutzer Sonata'' was in ``Monte Cristo.'' And his unconventional use of lasers to rev up Chekhov's play-within-a-play is distracting.
The Christmas package at Kennedy Center this season offers audiences a clear choice: In the Eisenhower Theater through Jan. 11, Sellars's flamboyant and experimental ``Seagull''; in the Opera House, a rerun of the commercial Broadway hit ``Aren't We All,'' a predictable British drawing-room comedy starring those polished performers Rex Harrison and Claudette Colbert.
The contrast is almost Chekhovian.