Vpstart's 'Seagull' Hits Few Heights

Jeffery Davidson as Dorn and Pamela Berthold as Irina in Vpstart Crow Productions'
Jeffery Davidson as Dorn and Pamela Berthold as Irina in Vpstart Crow Productions' "The Seagull." The Chekhov play runs through Oct. 22 at the Cramer Center. (Photos By Tim Betts)
By Michael J. Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 15, 2006

It has taken a while, but Vpstart Crow Productions is finally exploring the work of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov with "The Seagull." It's a challenge for the Manassas troupe and the results are mixed: "The Seagull" doesn't soar, but it doesn't totally lay an egg, either.

Chekhov, born in 1860, is generally considered one of the first and greatest modern playwrights. His stories are based on profoundly tragic themes that show the dramatic tensions of everyday life. They can easily become dreary in less-than-skilled hands. Chekhov laces his plays with a light and subtle satire, and it takes a finely tuned ensemble to balance the dark and light elements. Unfortunately, despite several sparkling performances, director Carlos Fischler and his uneven cast smudge the light and dark into lackluster gray.

"The Seagull" is about love, but it would be difficult to call it a love story, especially as love in Chekhov's world means everyone experiences considerable angst and suffering. Here, a series of romantic triangles on a Russian country estate in the late 19th century evolve over several years. It begins as two city folks, aging actress Irina (Pamela Berthold) and her companion, the younger novelist Trigorin (William Cook), visit the rural home of Irina's sickly brother Sorin (Philip Baedecker) and disrupt the placid lives of a small band of emotionally entangled people.

The plot is too convoluted to fully describe, but love triangles and quadrangles emerge, with characters tending to rebuff those who love them as they seek affection from those who refuse to return the favor. The title refers to a reappearing bit of imagery, beginning with a young actress, Nina (Allison Plourde), who likens herself to a sea gull. Soon, Konstantin (Rodger S. Graham Jr.), a prospective suitor, shoots a sea gull, by now a symbol of doomed dreams, and drops it at her feet. How's that for romance? (What a sea gull is doing in the Russian countryside is a question for a zoologist, not a theater reviewer.)

Fischler has his hands full trying to whip his 11-member cast into a cohesive unit. Much of the plot takes place offstage, making much of the acting reactive. Fischler uses a recent translation by playwright Tom Stoppard, but Chekhov's long speeches remain intact, presenting a challenge for actors who must create and sustain believable characters and a dramatic story line through dialogue. A delicate mix of melancholy and detachment must be carefully cultivated.

But most of Fischler's actors lurch from one speech to the next wallowing in overwrought emotion that quickly becomes tiresome. Add that to Vpstart Crow's habit of ignoring scenic design and lighting, and the effort rarely rises above lackluster. (An exception to the dismal production: the fine period costumes by Jamie Bartosavage Erdman, whose colorful creations add layers of authenticity to the performances.)

What saves this play from ruin is the brilliant work of several key players who find shades of realism in their characters. Foremost is Berthold as Irina, the actress who emotionally cripples her insecure son, Konstantin, even as she seeks admiration from everyone else.

Berthold, who recently relocated to this area after work in several soap operas, imbues the elegant, melodramatic woman with an attitude of calculated detachment that makes her all the more intriguing.

Jeffrey Davidson provides a richly textured portrayal of Dorn, a middle-aged doctor and erstwhile ladies man coming to grips with age, and Baedecker is engaging as feeble Sorin, calmly injecting reason into the proceedings with a wry amusement. Cook provides interesting moments as Trigorin, Irina's companion.

These charming performances allow the drama and the ironic comedy to be revealed in quotidian events, hinting at Chekhov's power to enchant and keeping this "Seagull" alive.

"The Seagull" continues through Oct. 22, at the Cramer Center, 9008 Center St., Old Town Manassas. Showtime on Fridays and Saturdays is 8 p.m. Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. Order tickets online at Tickets.com or call 800-955-5566. For information, call Vpstart Crow at 703-365-0240 or visithttp://www.vpstartcrow.com.

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