WASHINGTON — BY night, playgoers crowd the lobby of the Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater to sip ginger ale and coffee, or nibble on Jordan Almonds and gossip between acts of the current play. But by day, the lobby becomes a gray-slate stage for early rehearsals of upcoming plays.
They were hatching the new production of ``The Seagull,'' Chekhov's classic anticomedy in the lobby while Shaw's ``Pygmalion '' was commanding the Kreeger Stage.
Director Douglas C. Wager, wearing his trademark baseball cap, grouped the actors and the furniture in clumps for this first rehearsal of Act I, Scene 1 of ``Seagull.'' He began by doing what some symphony orchestra conductors do: breaking the score down, note by note, passage by passage, until the composer's intention is clear. In this case, Chekhov's script is the score, and the dialogue is the music that must be interpreted as closely as possible to Chekhov's intent.
While Chekhov was writing ``The Seagull'' he told a friend in a letter, ``It's a comedy with three female roles and six male roles, four acts, a landscape (view of a lake), lots of talk about literature, little action and 180 lbs. of love.''
The first production of ``The Seagull'' was done in St. Petersburg in 1896; Chekhov agonized over its failure for two years and vowed to give up writing. But in 1898, the new Moscow Art Theatre produced the play with Stanislavsky directing, in a second, enormously successful production.
On this first rehearsal of the Arena Stage's ``Seagull,'' director Wager has poured over Stanislavsky's notes to find what made the early production soar. He shares the notes with his actors, along with his own insights. ``It's useful for me to have a dialogue with Stanislavsky's prompt book,'' he said.
Mr. Wager begins slowly: They all talk about the characters just as you would do over dinner about people you'd recently met. They talk about the characters' backgrounds, relationships, motives, personalities, social strata, place (central Russia) and time (1890's Czarist Russia).
Actors peel the characters like onions, going deep to the core. Wager suggests to Pamela Nyberg, who plays Masha, that she consider Medviedenko (David Marks), the schoolmaster who follows her around like an adoring dog, ``good to be with because she doesn't have to be present with him, she can go away [let her thinking drift away.]'' She agrees and says, ``But also she keeps him around for attention ... she depends on him.'' Wager: ``Stanislavsky had him a chain smoker and he had her cracking pistachio nuts.'' They talk about whether sunflower seeds would be better for Masha.
The actors are in rehearsal clothes: no flowing gowns for blond Masha, just a loose blue-gray sweater and black stirrup pants, while the men, Medviedenko, Trepliov (John Leonard Thompson) and Yakov (Teagle F. Bougere) wear not frock coats but chinos, jeans, and shirts or sweaters.
Director and actors talk about the impetus for certain lines, or the reason for a stillness between glances. Wager says, ``You begin to realize that every nuance, every move can take you someplace'' in interpreting the play.
It will be days before they get to the outward directions like blocking, learning where to stand, stride, sit, and turn. The furniture at this point consists of a few bentwood chairs and a cream wicker loveseat. The lake is imaginary, the garden path meanders around the lobby's refreshment counter.
Chekhov grabs you with his unforgettable lines right from the start of Act 1 when Medviedenko asks Masha, ``Why do you always wear black?'' and she answers ``I'm in mourning for my life. I'm unhappy.'' A few lines later Medviedenko tells her, ``... your soul and mine have no points of contact. I love you. I can't stay at home because of my longing for you, and I walk six miles here and six miles back every day, but I get nothing from you except indifference.'' She answers ``... I'm feel touched by your love, but I can't return it, that's all.''
The actors break and with the director decide to try it again. Masha repeats the line ``I'm in mourning for my life'' and adds a one-liner of her own with a laugh: ``If you were me being followed by you, you'd be in black, too.''
Wager says, ``The magic of this relationship that is he [Medviedenko] doesn't get it. This is not a Chekhov satire. With this he is interested in the pathos, rather than creating a disparaging portrait. He genuinely loves her; this is the way he loves her. He has a very pure attitude. There's no duplicity on his part. For her to be casual ... You [he turns to Medviedenko] demonstrated your love by being present, but she didn't return it.''
Pamela Nyberg says of Masha, ``And I never say `Go away.''' Wager sums up: ``And that's why it's a universal play.''