Seagullmachine brings together the works of Anton Chekhov (in the words of Nick Benacerraf, who conceived and co-directed the show, “damn good”) and Heiner Müller (“damn crazy”). The portmanteau title together with publicity for the show suggest a mash-up between Chekhov’s 1896 The Seagull and Müller’s 1977 Hamletmachine, or a Hamletmachine treatment of The Seagull, yet The Assembly’s riff on “two iconic riffs on the Hamlet story” might more accurately be titled The Seagull & Hamletmachine. This is, in every sense, a play of two halves. The first act and most of the second is an almost unadulterated performance of most of The Seagull. Hamletmachine intrudes with only two or three otherworldly lines before finally cutting into the Russian play, hijacking its denouement with a complete performance of the controversial—and admittedly short—German play. The intrusion also marks a dramatic stylistic shift, to which the performers adapt with ease—an indication of The Assembly’s commitment to their exploratory work, as well as their willingness to potentially polarize audiences.
Despite this dramatic shift, there is a strong suggestion—underscored by the production—that Hamletmachine is a play Chekhov might have written had he been permitted another 100 years or so. Heralded as a master of realism (partly thanks to the weighty legacy of Konstantin Stanislavsky’s direction of his work), experimental touches can be discerned throughout his plays, and we learn with this production that an unfinished symbolist play was found in a desk drawer after his death. There is, of course, a third play haunting this production; one that was the focus of Chekhov and Müller’s fascination: Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The interpolated lines from Hamletmachine in The Seagull in the first half draw a chilling and poignant thread between the suicidal and potentially suicidal figures of Hamlet and Ophelia, Konstantin and Nina. This final takeover of one playwright’s work by another, however, throws the emphasis onto the question of dramatic form. While this is, of course, entirely in keeping with the desire to buck convention shared by the fictional young playwright Konstantin in The Seagull and the real-life playwright Müller, it overrides the more subtle realization contained in Nina’s final monologue that what is important in art is integrity and endurance as well as the more emotionally compelling aspects of both works.
This is an ambitious production, long in development. Were this simply a stand-alone production of The Seagull, it would be worthy of high praise for a brilliantly fresh interpretation that—even with the interpolations and non-conventional design elements—never forces the play in any direction that doesn’t feel true to its subtle genius. The conceit that “an ensemble takes refuge in an abandoned theater, caught in the struggle between action and distraction” is frankly nowhere in evidence until that second half, and the cast’s unselfconsciously natural approach allows the nuances of the text to shine though with a bright clarity. The cast is indeed excellent. It is gratifying in the age of the financially friendly two or three handers preferred by producers to see a thirteen strong ensemble of talented actors embodying some of the most well written characters of theatre history. It is difficult to single out individual actors, since even the essentially silent parts of Yakov, Cook, and Maid are played with understated humor by Daniel Maseda, Gaby Resende, Emily Caffery. Anna Abhau Elliott does the dour Masha credit and is well matched by Edward Bauer’s Medvedenko. Nehassaiu deGannes’s Arkadina, Ben Beckley’s Trigorin, Christopher Hurt’s Dorn, and Elena McGhee’s Polina highlight the different perspective of both comparative age and fame, against the almost embarrassing youth of Layla Khosh’s Nina and Jax Jackson’s Konstantin. As a whole, the cast brings out the poignant comedy of Chekhov’s play; a quality that is equally a credit to directors Jess Chayes and Nick Benacerraf.
Creative use of the Ellen Stewart Theatre’s cavernous garage-like space and close-circuit TV achieves both an exposed intimacy with the audience and the sense of the environment extending well beyond the scene being immediately played out. The scenic design by Benacerraf and Emmie Finckel and costumes by Kate Fry in this half are suggestive of found materials (presumably in keeping with the abandoned theatre premise). The spare set pieces effectively evoke each scene. A few less well-judged choices aside, the costumes succeed in simultaneously indicating the play’s historical origins and the 21st century present and establish character well. Sound design by Asa Wember (including a judicious use of amplification), as well as lighting design by Miriam Nilofa Crowe give those Hamletmachine moments their supernatural atmosphere and the two really pull out all stops in the full transition into Müller’s world, as does video designer, Ray Sun Ruey-Horng. Fry too has occasion to get more extravagant, channeling music hall burlesque in the switch to Hamletmachine.
The Hamletmachine section could likewise stand well on its own merits, although perhaps more for taking on the challenge of staging a rarely performed, difficult, yet significant text than the completely successful execution of that challenge. The absurdist aspect verges on overdone, tinged with parody that occasionally feels directed at, rather than stemming from the text (not, I am sure, the intent of the production). Müller’s text is already so strange, so grotesque, and so poetically dense that the manic clowning and sheer sensory overload of the additional production elements occasionally obscure as much as illuminate the potency of the work. There are, however, moments of resonant clarity that stand out amidst the almost too self-aware weirdness that is quickly exhausted and risks overshadowing the political stakes behind Müller’s work. Ophelia’s monologue performed by Khosh, for instance, in the stark empty space beyond the garage door that designates the main playing space is intensified only by its multiplication on the closed circuit TV screens, as Jackson films her. The words here are as haunting as they should be. Jackson—who goes by the pronoun, Jax—repeats the monologue, giving the same words a remarkable new resonance; different from what Müller may have imagined, but equally evocative of broader social truths. The Assembly’s facility with multi-media is also put to good use with the use of televised broadcast and details such as a projection of a digital clock accelerating towards the year 20 000.
Seagullmachine is a theatrical experience unlikely to please everyone all the time, but The Assembly appear ready to embrace that risk. The added value of smashing together these two works is mostly apparent in the smaller details—but these are beautifully evocative moments. Even with an approach almost guaranteed to divide, more contentious elements are outshone by the general brilliance and vibrancy of the whole. It is intelligent and creative work from an energetic and innovative company.
Seagullmachine runs to May 5, 2018. More production info can be found here.