The Drama Group of Germantown wraps up its inaugural season with "The Seagull" (1896), Anton Chekhov's seminal drama about troubled souls who gather on a country estate.
The Drama Group of Germantown wraps up its inaugural season with "The Seagull" (1896), Anton Chekhov's seminal drama about a collection of troubled souls who gather on a country estate, trying to create meaning in their banal existence through art and love.
The spotlight falls on Constantine, an ambitious 25-year-old writer who yearns to join the ranks of the "Intelligentsia." In some ways a stand-in for Chekhov, Constantine despises melodrama and wants to create "new forms" of theater. But he struggles to find release from unresolved passions.
"The Seagull" is a merry-go-round of unrequited love affairs. Constantine is passionately in love with young Nina. But Nina is goo-goo eyed over Trigorin. School teacher Simon (Geremy Webne-Behrman) loves Masha (Britt Fauzer), but Masha is in love with Constantine.
In the Chekhov original, Masha sums up many when she introduces herself with one of theater's most memorable lines: "I'm in mourning for my life."
Chekhov puts a full community on stage. In the Drama Group production, an adaptation crafted by co-director Josh Hitchens, Masha becomes more pitiable and less self-aware. Two older characters, doctor Dorn (Scott Galper) and estate owner Petra (Paula Kem) have come to terms with crushed dreams. Crusty servant Paulina (Janet Wasser) brings a touch of salty humor into this morass.
We are no longer in fin-de-siècle Russia in the production, co-directed by Ryan Walter. Instead, we are in a present-day country house in the northeastern United States. Chekhov's language is updated with some cussing and there are minor character changes.
Chekhov and Russia
But can you remove "The Seagull" from Russia? Chekhov captures a civilization in distress. With the end of serfdom, much of the gentry is impoverished and confused. Russian culture is different enough to feel exotic. For example, the concept of "Intelligentsia" is unique to Russia; there is no easy English translation.
In Chekhov, you see the turmoil of talented people who lack direction and peace of mind. There is a prophetic aura to his work. In all this curious floundering, it is hard not to recall the tragicomic Kerensky provisional government that was to come.
But I was surprised by how well the Drama Group show holds up. By situating the play in modern America, "The Seagull" is reduced to a more skeletal form. I was so caught up in the Russian-ness of Chekhov's world that I never saw him as one of the fathers of modern absurdism.
Yet there is a clear line of theatrical development from Chekhov to Becket. Unlike "Theater of the Absurd," now grown so gnostic it risks self-parody, you are affected by the desperate Chekhov characters that Drama Group actors put on stage.
Strong acting carries the show. Sam Fineman truly seems to be Constantine, Hamlet-like in bottomless despair. Constantine abhors Trigorin and sees his mother's lover as an interloper. It is a difficult role, but Fineman makes you feel Constantine's struggle to stay in control of his feelings.
Nina is Constantine's love interest. As an ambitious ingénue, she makes all the usual decisions. But two years later, we meet Nina again. She has gone through an ordeal and Brittany Delaware inhabits the complicated understanding of a changed woman.
Jennifer Summerfield plays Irina Arkadina, Constantine's mother and a vulnerable stage queen. Summerfield's movement is electric and glittering dress changes accent the many moods of a prima donna. Quinton J. Alexander plays 30-year-old Trigorin, the final major character. Trigorin is so drab, you sense his success as writer and lover is rooted in his inauthenticity.
Robert Bauer helmed the Drama Group for 40 years, producing numerous memorable shows. The pandemic helped nudge him into retirement. But he and other veterans remain on the periphery, helping out as mentors in the start-up venture.
The current focus is on classic drama. I already see a dramatic change in the use of theater space, with the auditorium floor becoming a theater in the round, while the stage comes into play at key moments. I look forward to what Drama Group will do with the classics in its second season.
The Drama Group of Germantown is located at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown. 6001 Germantown Ave. "The Seagull" will run through April 1. Tickets ($10 to $15) are available at the door and at ticketleap.com