THE AMERICAN National Theater revival of Chekhov's "The Seagull" is colorful, vivid and strongly felt -- and as directed by Peter Sellars, unlike any "Seagull" you've ever experienced. Perhaps that's why Sellars decided to call it "A Seagull."
Concerned as it is with the creative process (and its reception/perception) and calling for a more important, more adventurous theater, "A Seagull" is uncannily right for ANT, the self-conscious fledgling company so dedicated to creating new forms.
Chekhov's script, in a new translation by Maria M. Markof-Belaeff, is intricately patterned with themes from adult life: love, success, jealousy; and no matter how self-inflated, his characters are equal in their pettiness -- there are no "star" roles in "A Seagull."
As Irina, the vain, miserly and unarguably grand lady of the Russian stage, Colleen Dewhurst gives an elegant and controlled performance, and we sense Irina's envy and fear of an oncoming wave of youthful talent that will sweep her aside. Kevin Spacey is fierce as her son Treplov, an iconoclastic, histrionic young writer who rails against a stodgy, established theater strangled by an elite.
Sellars' unmistakable visual and directorial signatures are all over his "Seagull." Where other directors would "center" the action on the stage, Sellars crams his actors into one tiny corner or has them address each other across the expanse. To emphasize the youthful ardor and naivet,e of Treplov and the aspiring actress Nina, Sellars sets actors Spacey and Kelly McGillis running breathlessly, and Spacey is constantly kicking the furniture in petulant pique. Other moments are similarly exaggerated for impact: despairing Treplov tearing and retearing his work into tiny shreds, the hushed expectant pauses after key events.
As in "The Count of Monte Cristo," Sellars gives this production an unforgettable look and marries music to the drama. Pianist Leslie Amper, seated at an onstage concert grand, performs music by Alexander Scriabin, a contemporary of Chekov's, cued to underline emotional peaks.
Set designer George Tsypin and light designer James F. Ingalls create glowing images that are somehow both austere and spectacular. A set of battered wooden chairs and a few tables -- and, pointedly, the performers -- are dwarfed by vast backdrops inspired by Mark Rothko paintings, abstract expanses of light and hue that slowly evolve into cloudlike forms with the changing light.
It wouldn't be a Sellars show without moments of entertaining excess. As Act Two opens, he lulls us with several minutes of dimmed light, then figuratively screams "WAKE UP!", blinding us, like a flashbulb in the face, with the brilliantly lit flame-orange set. It takes a full minute's adjustment before you can even look at the stage. Treplov's play-within-a-play is staged with clouds of fog and a startling emerald-green laser display, a dazzling but incongruous effect.
It's difficult not to hear Sellars speaking whenever brash Treplov rhapsodizes about his ideal theater. "Life must be depicted not as it is and not as it ought to be but just as we dream of it being," Treplov/Sellars says. And ANT's "A Seagull" is a memorable dream.
A SEAGULL -- At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through January 11.