Review: Catalyst Repertory’s ‘The Seagull’

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In Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” tortured artist Treplev insists that theater must take on new forms.

And, after seeing Catalyst Repertory’s production of that classic play at the Grove Haus (through Sept. 24), I feel as if I need to invent some new form of criticism. Something that, like the play, embraces weakness as much as strength while striving to capture the essence–the beating heart–that makes the theater a living thing.

But first, some plot summary, since we’ve been more likely to see Chekhov variations in local theaters (“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at the Phoenix, IU, and elsewhere, Butler University’s commentary-added production of “The Seagull in 2016) than we are seeing anything resembling the originals.

“The Seagull” zeroes in on a small universe of dissatisfied characters over the course of two visits, two years apart. Treplev, a young, pretentious playwright, pines for his would-be leading lady Nina, who ends up in a dead-end affair with Trigorin, the younger partner of Konstantin’s actress mother Arkadina. Meanwhile, gloomy Masha has a thing for Konstantin and, in turn, is being wooed by teacher Medvedenko. And I haven’t mentioned the minor characters.

“How distraught they all are,” says one, hitting the nail on the head.

What such a reductive description misses is that “The Seagull” is a great play that aches with the pain of being human. Its beauty and truth comes from the way we come to care about the characters and their failed attempts to hold onto moments of connectivity.

Since theater is a relationship between audience and players, it would seem deceptive to report on this production without acknowledging the fact that it was performed for an audience of five–not counting the production folks–on the Sunday matinee I attended. It’s hard to imagine the focus required for the company to deliver this rich of a play to that small of a group, but they performed valiantly, with performancing ranging from ernest one-note to nuanced and complex.  

The space, too, should be acknowledged, since the stained glass windows of Grove Haus neutered any effort at theatrical lighting in a mid-afternoon show, impacting scene changes and muting climaxes.

I’m no Chekhov scholar, so I couldn’t tell you all of the cuts made in director Casey Ross’ adaptation. I did feel as if I missed more of the relationship of Arkadina to Nina. The cuts seems to push the writer Trigorin, who channels every experience into his superficial art, more to the forefront. And while Chekhov labeled his play a comedy, this production seemed to take that as motivation to crossover into “I Love Lucy” schtick, which did no favors for the believability of the  characters.

Like Treplev, I fear I’ve failed to actually create a new form here. And, like Trigorin, I don’t think I’ve gotten very far below the surface. One thing I am certain of, though, is the sheer gutsiness of Catalyst, which has the most relentless and ambitious lineup of offerings of any theater in the region. From “Equus,” to “Tooth of Crime” to world premieres by local playwrights, Catalyst never seems to take a breather.

And in a town that has lost Acting Up Productions, Wisdom Tooth, and (at least for the time being) Theatre on the Square in recent years, I hope that audiences seek out more fully produced professional or semi-pro theater work such as this.

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