Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Seagull and Mrs. Sting

I interviewed Trudie Styler, aka Mrs. Sting last night. I was offered free tickets to see THE SEAGULL production now playing at the Culture Project, and at first they said all I had to do was write a review, but after I agreed, they switched it up and said I had to interview Styler and post it to the NYCPlaywrights web site, which I did. People Magazine stuff isn't really part of NYCPlaywrights mission, but I had already agreed to accept free tickets so felt honor-bound to do it.

I have nothing against Styler, I know almost nothing about her. But I didn't feel like doing the whole celebrity thing - unless I really like a celebrity for something they've done that I consider valuable, I find celebrities irritating.

Styler was perfectly nice, although her face is odd - it seems to be made of 60% cheekbone. Also she seemed surprised that I did not know that Sting had acted before, including in a 1989 production of THREEPENNY OPERA. Which Frank Rich hated.

I had never read nor seen SEAGULL before. My main contact with Chekhov had been a public television adaptation of several of his short stories - which I thought was very good, and a collection of his short plays, which didn't especially impress me. Chekhov himself wasn't especially impressed - he said of his play THE BEAR:

"I've managed to write a stupid vaudville which, owing to the fact that it is stupid, is enjoying surprising success."

I wasn't especially impressed by SEAGULL either. The NYTimes gave this production a so-so review but Isherwood seems to like Styler's work here.

However, it did give me an insight into the stagecraft of Tom Stoppard. When I saw his ARCADIA I complained:
But the actual big tragic event is that Thomasina dies in a fire on her seventeenth birthday and it is implied in the 20th century section that Septimus went crazy as a result and that is why he spends the rest of his life living in the hermitage trying to work out Thomasina's equations.
We don't ever see any of this. The Regency period plot ends the evening before the fire.
 
Now compare that to KING LEAR - we don't actually see the death of Cordelia, but we've seen Lear go nuts and we see him recover his wits long enough to mourn the death of Cordelia - while she is actually in his arms - and then we see him die of a broken heart. 
We get none of that in ARCADIA - we hear a researcher say that the person in the hermitage was probably crazy and we hear a researcher say that Thomasina died in a fire on her seventeenth birthday. And we congratulate ourselves for figuring out what happened. But we don't get to see what happened. 
We don't actually have to see Thomasina die in a fire - we don't see Cordelia actually die - but we could at least see the effects of Thomasina's death on Septimus as enacted by the actor - not as theorized by researchers two centuries later.
This practice of leaving the exciting bits off stage is apparently something that Chekhov is known for if you believe Wikipedia:
 In contrast to the melodrama of the mainstream theatre of the 19th century, lurid actions (such as Konstantin's suicide attempts) are not shown onstage. 
And sometimes Wikipedia is not to be believed - right after the above statement it says:
Characters tend to speak in ways that skirt around issues rather than addressing them directly; in other words, their lines are full of what is known in dramatic practice as subtext,[1] or text that is not spoken aloud.
I don't know what version of this play the Wiki author saw, but the one I saw (and the text available at Gutenberg.org) utterly disputes the idea that characters don't address issues directly. Jesus Christ, that's ALL they do!

First of course is the business with the seagull itself - it's the name of the play, and Trigorin tells us exactly and I mean exactly, what this play is about:
TRIGORIN
Nothing much, only an idea that occurred to me. [He puts the book back in his pocket] An idea for a short story. A young girl grows up on the shores of a lake, as you have. She loves the lake as the gulls do, and is as happy and free as they. But a man sees her who chances to come that way, and he destroys her out of idleness, as this gull here has been destroyed. 
Not only do subsequent events illustrate this monologue exactly, but Nina actually says several times "I am the Sea-gull" and signs her letters "The Sea-gull."
NINA
I am a sea-gull—no—no, that is not what I meant to say. Do you remember how you shot a seagull once? A man chanced to pass that way and destroyed it out of idleness. That is an idea for a short story, but it is not what I meant to say.
Subtext? How about hit-over-the-headtext? I mean what does Chekhov have to do to demonstrate that he's not interested in subtext? Have Konstantine deliver a monologue right before he goes off stage to kill himself saying: "Nina was the seagull, and Trigorin destroyed her just as he said he would, and she still loves him and not me and that is why I am going to shoot myself."

Every other character says exactly what they think too. Paulina is insecure of her adulterous relationship with the doctor, and says it several times. Masha is in love with Konstantine and says so several times. Konstantine realizes that Nina doesn't love him any more and says it out loud. Peter mentions twice that he regrets never having married or tried acting.

In fact, as I was watching the play and hadn't heard yet that Chekhov was known for subtext, I thought that maybe he was supposed to be such a big deal because he deliberately had his characters say aloud what people in real life only rarely say aloud.

But back to this leaving the exciting bits (aka "melodrama") off the stage. The entire story of Trigorin impregnating and abandoning Nina is briefly stated and then shrugged off by all the other characters except Konstantine, and since we never see it happen, we shrug it off too. Trigorin is clearly a huge asshole, and almost nobody minds. We don't even get to see Irina struggle with whether to take him back or not, which anybody would have done. Instead we get all these drawing room scenes and the big flapping Symbolism of the seagull.

And as if that wasn't enough, this Culture Project version of the play is transplanted to Ireland - for what reason I can't fathom - and the director had to give the Irina-Konstantine relationship a creepy incest moment where Konstantine gets all grabby with his mother and then kisses her on the lips - something that does not happen in the text of the play. I guess the director figured that since liberties have been taken with the Hamlet-Gertrude relationship in HAMLET, why not do the same thing here, since HAMLET is even directly referenced in SEAGULL.

This is why you cannot trust most directors - they can turn Hamlet into a sicko, they can turn any other character into one, and you're supposed to just accept it, the way you're supposed to accept that Trigorin is a huge asshole, and that's OK because what's really important is Symbolism, not watching Trigorin be an asshole on stage.

If it was good enough for Shakespeare to depict somebody's eyes being gouged out on stage (speaking of King Lear), then "melodrama" is good enough for any playwright. Including Chekhov and Stoppard.

Predictably, Stoppard loves Chekhov.

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