Early in "A Seagull," Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplov offers an impassioned defense of the play he has just written and which is about to be performed in the park on his uncle's estate.
"New forms are needed," he argues heatedly, as if anticipating the indifferent reaction his work will receive. "And if there are none, better there were nothing."
The credo, one senses, could very well be that of Peter Sellars, who -- in this, his second directorial assignment for the American National Theater -- continues to implant his unorthodox vision on the stage of the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. But while his first offering, "The Count of Monte Cristo," was receptive to his startling innovations, "A Seagull," which opened a four-week run Saturday night, tends to resist them. There's a war of personalities going on here.
Sellars throws himself into the fray with flamboyance. His theatrical signature is big and assertive, influenced as much by the grandiosity of 19th-century melodrama as by the latest avant-garde experiments. Chekhov, on the other hand, holds back, observing the slow disintegration of provincial Russian society with ironic detachment. He is the most reticent of the great playwrights. Out of all the careless slights and passing inattentions of daily living, he builds a universe.
His characters are indecisive, adrift, petty, prey to aspirations they cannot bring themselves to realize. Konstantin (Kevin Spacey) wrestles fitfully with his would-be masterpiece and pines for the luminous Nina (Kelly McGillis), who will star in its abortive performance. Nina, meanwhile, dreams of a career on the stage and is naively drawn to Trigorin (David Strathairn), a visiting second-rate novelist. Trigorin, however, is very much the property of Irina Arkadina (Colleen Dewhurst), Konstantin's self-centered mother and an actress herself, although probably not a very good one. So it goes: misguided dreams and mismatched loves leading to spiritual asphyxiation.
In "A Seagull," the first of his major plays, Chekhov accomplishes the seemingly impossible or at least the paradoxical. Without violating the triviality of these lives, he orchestrates the feelings of checkmate and confusion into wrenching drama. From the seemingly mundane, he spins the cosmic. Sellars appreciates the scope and significance of that drama, but he vaults right over the minutiae that goes into its making. He never allows the characters to appear small, insignificant, lost -- which is, in part, what makes them so moving. From the start, the tumult in their souls is writ large across the stage.
Instead of a realistic country setting, Sellars relies upon a dozen or so battered wooden chairs, rearranged before a series of drops by George Tsypin that seem to take their abstract forms and blazing colors from the canvases of Mark Rothko. Footlights throw white light up into the faces of the actors, while an on-stage pianist, playing Scriabin, underscores the more inflamed speeches. The actors, in fact, often come right down to the footlights to talk directly to the audience. There is to be no eavesdropping on our part. Sellars wants us to meet the play head-on.
The production is often visually astonishing -- the performers, dressed almost entirely in black and white, stand out against the bright backdrops like birds in a sunset. Sellars uses the occasion of Konstantin's play to give us a laser show, filling the Eisenhower stage with dancing beams of green light and clouds of smoke, which swirl about McGillis' immobile body like ocean waves. If "The Count" plunged head over heels in pursuit of adventure, "A Seagull" favors vast panoramas that freeze the actors in space and silence. And they can be breathtaking.
Time, of course, is forever slipping through the fingers of Chekhov's characters, who can't remember where it went or how they spent it. (Sellars underlines the slippage with epic pauses.) They are inattentive to one another's needs. (Sellars has them resolutely turn their backs on one another -- or us.) Arkadina, fearful that Trigorin will fall for Nina, the younger woman, pleads and wheedles him back into her clutches. (Sellars has Dewhurst and Strathairn act the scene literally nose to nose.)
Stunning as all this can be, I fear it tears holes in the play's texture. The production pinpoints the pain that each character is suffering and blows it up. But it also isolates that pain. What we don't get is a sense of interrelatedness, the necessary impression that these sad creatures are entangled in one another's desires. It is the accumulation of waste, the overlapping futility, that ultimately makes "A Seagull" so heart-rending. In the Eisenhower, however, the actors seem to have been sentenced to solitary confinement.
A certain hesitancy and bewilderment mark the performance of Dewhurst, one of our finest actresses, who here appears to be looking for her moorings much of the time. Although wan of face, Spacey has a concentrated intensity that serves to anchor him to the stage. Strathairn's Trigorin, though, is so low-key that it registers as a minor surprise when he wrestles McGillis to the floor in a moment of carnal passion. As for McGillis, her sheer physical radiance serves her well in the play's first three acts. But when she returns in the fourth -- a broken, half-crazed victim of her romantic delusions -- the actress is in over her head.
Priscilla Smith fluctuates between states of somnambulism and shrieking frustration as Masha, one of those Chekhovian spinsters who find marriage to a boob preferable to creeping bordeom. It's an excessive display of histrionics that makes you appreciate all the more the quiet understanding of Paul Winfield, who gives the evening's most persuasive performance as the local physician. I also welcomed Henderson Forsythe's Sorin -- a crotchety old man, who has regained with illness the petulance of a child.
Some spectators, I suspect, will probably want to dismiss this "Seagull" with the line that Arkadina uses on Konstantin's play: "There are no new forms here -- only an obnoxious display of character." What is on display is a very forceful sensibility -- and it belongs to Sellars. The evening has more to do with his way of seeing the world than Chekhov's. Bearing that in mind will help keep you alert and interested.
A Seagull, by Anton Chekhov, translated by Maria M. Markof-Belaeff. Directed by Peter Sellars. Sets, George Tsypin; lighting, James F. Ingalls; costumes, Kurt Wilhelm; lasers, Northlight Studio. With Colleen Dewhurst, Henderson Forsythe, Kelly McGillis, Kathleen Nolan, Priscilla Smith, Kevin Spacey, David Strathairn, Paul Winfield, Tony Mockus. At the Eisenhower Theater through Jan. 11.