This production of The Seagull, Anton Chekhov's canonical play about art and lust among Russians staying by a lake in the countryside, is a new experiment in doing things the old-fashioned way. Led by director John Langs at ACT Theater, a team of artists spent almost a year rehearsing and exploring the play and its author. Most plays at regional theaters like ACT zip from first rehearsal to opening night in a few weeks, they close after a few more weeks, and then everyone's off to the next project. Solo performer Mike Daisey gleefully mocked this bang-it-out, get-'er-done way of making theater in his 2008 monologue How Theater Failed America:
On the first day, the stage manager walks into a big, empty rehearsal room. They flip on the lights and check their watch. A moment later, an enormous box of freeze-dried actors is shot in from New York City! And the stage manager runs over and starts thawing out the actors. The actors leap out: "Whoa! Where the fuck am I? I don't give a shit. What play are we doing? I don't care! I'm ready to go!" The director flies in from another direction—he has just done 12 shows back-to-back. He jumps out and says: "What are we doing? Is it Pericles? Okay, hold on, I made some notes on this cocktail napkin. It's about, uh, [reading from the napkin] 'innocence' and 'corruption.' Okay! Yeah! Let's do it!"
These are people who've never met each other before in their lives, they're complete strangers, and they rehearse for three and a half weeks. Which, conveniently, is exactly how long it takes to master every play ever written in the English language!
His description isn't far from the truth, and plenty of actors or directors talk wistfully about far-off, exotic theaters—usually in Russia or Central Europe—where the artists spend a year or more steeping in a play. (To be fair, some American theater and dance companies, like Steppenwolf, will also spend months and years developing a production, but most working American theater artists regard them as rare birds, to be admired and envied.)
So... was this nine-month Seagull worth it? Did the actors, as the program notes proudly announce, "achieve spontaneous, surprising, deeply complex, and nuanced performances that are all but impossible to create in a traditional three-week rehearsal process of a Chekhov play"?
Maybe. Without taking a taste-test challenge—comparing, say, six plays and trying to figure out which was rehearsed for nine months and which for three weeks—it's impossible to tell. But each performance in this Seagull, even from familiar actors, seemed brighter, cleaner, and lighter on its feet than usual. No moment seemed casual or thoughtless, but none seemed too precious and pompous, either.
Julie Briskman as the preening actress-mother Arkadina, for example, radiated charm, even when she was speaking poison. Peter Crook as the world-weary doctor who sees through everybody's bullshit was fun to watch. "Fun" is not an adjective people tend to use when they talk about The Seagull, and especially not for the doctor whose most memorable line is "People are so boring!" But watching Crook was fun.
And it's hard not to fall in love with Alexandra Tavares as Nina, the naive country girl who dreams of becoming a famous actress and steals hearts along the way. Tavares's performance has an unusual combination of radiance and earthiness—fitting for a provincial girl with big-city dreams. Not earthy like dung, but sweet and musky like a loft full of hay.
Tavares delivered one line in particular, a very small one, that seemed as if the whole nine-month rehearsal thing might have paid off. She was standing on the shores of the lake, talking to/flirting with Trigorin (a successful but middlebrow author played by John Bogar). She was saying that she had grown up on that lake—"I know every little island." Tavares spoke with a slight pause between "every" and "little" and "island," barely narrowing her eyes while her gaze drifted sideways. That tiny gesture was so rich with possibility—if the production had been a film, the director might have jumped to a fantasy sequence involving a rowboat, a passionate kiss, some moonlit nudity. But it was just a stage and just a narrowing of the eyes—and it worked.
The day after seeing the show, I e-mailed Brandon J. Simmons, the actor playing Konstantin and a coproducer of the project, to ask whether he thought the nine-month rehearsal process was worth it. Yes, he wrote. "When you feel like it's a sprint to opening night, and we all have an ego that wants to keep us safe, then we rely on tricks and looking good, and this is very unsatisfying."
Sure, sure—it's a nice indulgence for actors. But does it matter to the audience? Does it make a difference to us?
"Can audiences tell? Maybe, though I kind of hope not. I'd rather there just be a little something nagging at them a few days later that they can't quite describe, except perhaps to say, 'It was just the way she looked at him.'"
I'd just been thinking of Tavares's eye-narrowing moment. I guess the experiment paid off.