Acting Chekhov can be compared to playing Mozart: What looks simple on the page or score requires great technique and understanding. How else to achieve the layers of nuance that such tough-but-delicate creations demand?
Karl Miller and Megan Anderson face that conundrum nightly at Rep Stage in Columbia, where they play Konstantin and Nina, the troubled twenty-somethings in "The Seagull" through Sunday.
"The last time I did Chekhov I felt great about it, but it was because I was responsible for one small part of it," recalls Miller, who in 2002 played the tutor Trofimov in "The Cherry Orchard" at Round House Theatre. Now he's at the center as the frustrated son of a celebrated actress who withholds everything from him -- her approval of his writing and her financial support. It literally kills him.
Konstantin "has no real ego. He's been in the back seat his entire life and he's already broken before the play begins," observes the actor. "He doesn't explode and he isn't killed by external forces. He implodes. And that's a very hard thing to portray. . . .
"In any other tragedy, 'Oedipus' or 'Hamlet,' " Miller adds, "there's at least something liberating in their downfall. They've come to a sense of higher truth. . . . With Chekhov it's not like that."
Miller recently played a lead in "Arcadia" at Rep Stage and first gained attention a couple of seasons ago in "This Is Our Youth" at Studio Secondstage. He will soon play the Maniac in Rorschach Theatre's "Accidental Death of an Anarchist."
When Anderson talks about playing the ambitious, romantic, naive (at first) Nina, who does not return Konstantin's passion, she sounds more intuitive than academic.
"Chekhov can be intimidating . . . everybody has written about it and everybody has an opinion, and the characters are so familiar," she says. Like Miller, she had her first professional Chekhovian experience in Round House's "Cherry Orchard," directed by Nick Olcott.
"I'm glad I didn't do 'The Seagull' two years ago. I'm glad I have that knowledge from Nick," says Anderson. The challenge of doing Chekhov for her is "to find the contemporary language and feelings that I can understand [within] the more complex language [and] the fancier quotes" of a Chekhov play. She tries to locate "the human thing that I can relate to, where you don't have to deal with the period trappings or mannerisms. And then you can build on that kernel."
Anderson says she has had to refrain from judging Nina's perhaps foolish, unrealistic notions about romance or a life on the stage -- not to "put a cap on where she can go in terms of her ambitions or her desire to be great . . . everything has to be huge and exciting and possible."
After all, observes the actress, "when we have our own life experiences, we're not wise to them when they happen."
"Perception and Reality" is the theme of Washington Stage Guild's 2004-05 season. They'll continue to perform at 14th and T streets NW, though a permanent home is on the horizon in the downtown Penn Quarter.
The world premiere of Sean O'Leary's "Pound" (Oct. 28-Nov. 28), about the controversial genius poet Ezra Pound, will be staged by Artistic Director John MacDonald.
"Incorruptible: A Dark Comedy About the Dark Ages" (Jan. 6-Feb. 6), by Michael Hollinger, is set in a monastery in medieval France where the patron saint hasn't worked a miracle in too long. Steven Carpenter will direct. The Stage Guild will get back to its own patron saint (though of a very secular sort), George Bernard Shaw, with "You Never Can Tell" (March 3-April 3), directed by MacDonald.
The season will close with "Humble Boy" (April 21-May 22) by Charlotte Jones, directed by Alan Wade. The play drops in on an unusual family in Moreton-on-the-Mold, a town where, we're told, "some find astrophysics funny."
"Passion and Remembrance" is the umbrella title for Teatro de la Luna's main-stage season. It will be performed in Spanish at the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington with simultaneous English translation on headsets.
The season opens with "La Lechuga/The Lettuce" (Oct. 15 -Nov. 13) by Venezuelan writer Cesar Sierra. The dark comedy portrays a dysfunctional family (is there any other kind?) in which the adult children visit the aging patriarch on his birthday. Harold Ruiz will direct.
"The Best of Both Worlds," the Eighth International Festival of Hispanic Theater, brings in companies from around the Spanish-speaking world Feb. 9-March 19. Costa Rican playwright Samuel Rovinski will oversee the festival.
The satire "Continente Viril/Virile Continent" (May 20-June 18) by Argentine playwright Alejandro Acobino encompasses suicidal penguins in Antarctica and humankind's relationship with nature.
* Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company will roast Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz at a fundraising gala Monday at the Lansburgh Theatre. Proceeds go to Woolly's soon-to-open theater on Seventh Street NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit www.woollymammoth.net.
* Rep Stage, in conjunction with its production of "The Seagull," will present actor, director and teacher Walt Witcover in "Introducing Anton" on Tuesday, Oct. 12, at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 13 at 1 p.m. at Howard Community College in Columbia. The free lecture-performances will include Chekhov's monodrama "On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco." Call 410-772-4900 or visit www.howardcc.edu/repstage.
* Scena Theatre's just-closed production of "Ivona, Princess of Burgundia" by Witold Gombrowicz now travels to a festival of the writer's work in Lublin, Poland. Scena will move on to Berlin, Vienna and Maribor, Slovenia, with its Edgar Allan Poe twofer, "The Fall of the House of Usher," starring Christopher Henley, Carter Jahncke and Linda Murray, and "The Tell-Tale Heart," performed by Artistic Director Robert McNamara.