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Manuela Kustermann as Madame Arkadina. Photo by Max Botticelli
October 19 to November 5
La MaMa E.T.C. (Annex Theater), 74A East Fourth Street
(presented by La MaMa E.T.C.)
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 3:30 pm and 8:00 pm
Fri & Sat $20/tdf; Th & Sun $15/tdf
Box office (212) 475-7710
Reviewed by Rosette Lamont October 29, 2000
Giancarlo Nanni's brilliant production of Chekhov's gossamer stage poem, The Seagull, with the highly creative input of his company results in a new take on this end-of-century (1896) tragicomedy. Paolo Lorirner, the play's Trigorin, says: "Our production is an ensemble work, Chekhov's monologue on playwriting and acting. We have taken our cue from the declaration of Konstantin Treplev, the doomed hero of the piece: "We need new forms of expression.... One must depict...life not as it is, and not as it ought to be, but as we see it in our dreams."

Cast of "The Seagull." Photo by Max Botticelli
Nanni, who began his career as a painter, started his association with Manuela Kustermann, the new Duse as she has been called, some thirty years ago. Together, with the active participation of a core of actors, they created a malleable, ever-shifting art. "What is important to us as actors is to avoid building a monument," Lorimer explains. The emphasis of Il Vascello is on melding the views of all the participants in the creation of a dominant image. In this instance it is the projected image of the flight of the seagull, mirrored in the ecstatic run of Anja Sozani, the one we call "the Inner Nina." One of the fascinating aspects of this production is the presence of two Ninas on the stage, "the Real Nina" (Marta Nuti) and the Inner Nina. On the other hand, a single actor (Massimo Fedele) plays two roles: Sorin, Arkadina's brother, and Doctor Dorn, a country Lothario, twin images of failed lives. This doubling separates the production from traditional poetic realism. It is the poetic part which comes to the fore.

The production opens with the seemingly haphazard entrances of the members of the cast. They trickle in, take up positions on the stage, then each goes through a set of exercises, limbering up for performance. Thus, as viewers, we may not be tricked into the so-called reality of Chekhov's text, though we are led into the equally deceitful reality of the actors daily existence. It is all show, and we revel in it.

The actual play opens with a scene of total mourning, as extreme as Masha's pose in the opening lines of Act I:

MEDVEDENKO. Why do you always wear black?

MASHA I'm in mourning for my life I am unhappy.

Nanni has picked up this wonderfully ridiculous pose. lifting it to a climax of self-pity. The whole cast lines up. facing the public. Each member picks up the edge of a sumptuous black velvet cloth lying stage front, and tucks it onto their chests. As they slowly move back, the cloth slides, rises. envelops them. when they stop, midway, the actor at the start of the line passes a white rose. Followed by other white roses it travels down, and is allowed to fall into the black velvet folds. This completed, the line-up moves further back, the heads and faces of the actors are now covered. They become a single being, The Mourner. This initial scene sets the tone for the whole play, just as Chekhov did with his wonderfully ironic first exchange. Masha is a caricature of the falsely romantic Russian maiden confined to an intensely boring country existence.

Her opposite is just as ridiculous in the pride she takes in her career as a stage actress, and in her showy amour-passion for her lover. the second-rate writer, Boris Trigorin. He, however. harbors few illusions, except for the fleeting affair he will have with Nina. Trigorin is the successful hack, free of illusions as to his lack of talent. His writing, he claims disarmingly, is compulsive rather than inspired. He writes as people eat or move their bowels. It is digestive literature, he confesses to bewildered yet incurably romantic Nina, the very type of the jeune fille russe: "I have no rest from myself, and I feel I am eating up my own life." He also knows that the readers continually place him with the second raters. "Charming but very inferior to Tolstoy... Turgenev's Father and Children is finer. And it will be the same to my dying day, only charming and clever, nothing more." However, he cannot convince Nina of his mediocrity. She is dazzled by this encounter which prevents her from seeing that the true artist is the young man who adores her, Konstantin Treplev. His suicide is the true tragedy of Chekhov's deeply ironic and sad play. Matteo Chioatto was perfect for this part, and quite amazing in the scenes with Arkadina.

Perhaps the most striking scenes in this production were the bizarrely sensual ones between mother and son. Manuela Kustermann, celebrated in Rome for her playing Hamlet (in the Sarah Bernhardt tradition), revived her role as grounded in Arkadina's Act I recitation: Oh, Hamlet. speak no more!..." However, in the Nanni/Kustermann production, the roles remained gender-linked. The Il Vascello Gertrude/Hamlet scene is indebted to the Olivier movie Hamlet, but it goes far beyond it in its raw sexuality. In their big scene together, Kostya lies on top of a tumbled chair which pins down his mother. He overpowers her, smothering her with kisses. Nor is she mothering him with hers. She struggles to free herself, but is held more by the surfacing of her desires than by his agility. In Chekhov's play, the scenes between mother and son are deeply tender, particularly when she changes the bandage covering his self-inflicted wound. Here they border on rape, and Arkadina is close to yielding. However, the highly sexual scene between Arkadina and her lover Trigorin, when she seduces him hack right after he begs her to let him be free so that he can taste the joy of a young love, is played as in a dream. Arkadina, the supreme actress, recites her lines from center state while Trigorin sits on stage right. She is at a great distance from him as she utters endearments and tells him he is the final chapter of her passionate abandon. It is one of the magnificent speeches in the play, but all we are made to see are her empty hands, touched by a spotlight.

Arkadina is not glamorized in the Il Vascello production. There are moments of pure derision, as when Arkadina suddenly puts on a bright-red clown nose. Chekhov did not see her as a femme fatale but as a ridiculous, selfish, avaricious, domineering ham actress.

One of the most arresting features of this production of The Seagull is the imaginative "scrittura scenica" of the Vascello. The use of veils is beautifully evocative, as well as the filmed projections. There is a green/blue veil which flots above the stage. It creates an imaginary lake, and the feeling that all that we see is taking place at the bottom of a magical lake. Russian literature and poetry are full of fairy tales. Pushkin, as a child, fell asleep listening to the folk tales of his peasant nurse. We have the same feeling here, and the two Ninas do much to convey it. Mia Sozani, the Inner Nina, speaks her lines in Russian. Her tall, graceful, diaphanous figure with long arms stretched up, suggests an elf, a wandering soul. But Nanni does not seek to hide the technical tools which create his effects. There is a huge metallic spot light which is wheeled out, as though to say: "We use all the means we possess to create magic. We are proud of the advanced technology which allows us to create magic on the stage." It is not unlike walking into a painter's studio, seeing his brushes, his palette, tubes of paints, sprays, varnish. palette knives. This in no way diminishes the magic, it adds to its mystery. Nor should we forget the costumer's art. Towards the end of the show, a curtain is drawn open, revealing a high wall, covered with costumes hanging from the ceiling, and in fact covering the whole wall. Nanni, the painter, tells us what to look for. Nothing is too humble when we are concerned with art- making.

Thank you Giancarlo Nanni, Manuela Kustermann and all the dedicated artists and technicians who allowed us to lend our ear to Chekhov's monologue. Thank you La MaMa for keeping us in touch with the best examples of serious art on our fragile, wondrous planet. [Lamont]

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