Review: Adult Film Hatches a Splendid New "Sea Gull"

Sea Gull

Written by Anton Chekhov

Translated by John Christopher Jones

Directed by Ryan Czerwonko

Presented by Adult Film at Rutgers Presbyterian Church (236 W 73rd St., Manhattan, NYC), May 8-June 1, 2024, and Stone Circle Theatre (59-14 70th Ave., Queens, NYC), June 2, 2024

The cast of Sea Gull. Source:
Anton Chekhov's The Sea Gull (1895) was unquestionably innovative in its time, becoming a milestone in world drama, and Adult Film's new production of the Chekhov classic, Sea Gull, channels that innovatory spirit in a fleet, engrossing staging. Using a new translation by film and theater veteran John Christopher Jones, Sea Gull opens with a filmed segment that would fit comfortably in an arthouse film and that draws from the work's abortive play-within-a-play, a recontextualization that invites hearing its imagery of the cold emptiness of extinction, the horror of material existence, and the contrast between ever-changing matter and ever-constant (perhaps artistic) spirit as a thematic framing and a comment on what is to come. Adult Film, composed of working-class artists, have worked on Sea Gull for an entire year, recording this work as part of a feature film documentary; and the recurrence of video, both prerecorded and live (courtesy of Meg Case and Brad Porter), in the production both reflects this process and gives a sense of the characters' lives as always already performance, as well as grist for the creative mill, in a play that orbits around questions of art and celebrity.
Konstantin (Ryan Czerwonko, who also directs), for example, is author of the aforementioned play-within-a-play and aspires to literary greatness and new forms of art, even as, when the play opens, he is unemployed and lives with his mother on her brother Sorin's (Simon Fortin) estate. That mother, the vain Arkadina (a terrific Megan Metrikin), has achieved success–though not enough wealth to comfortably offset her hedonistic expenditures–as an actress. She seems genuinely to love her son, but that doesn't stop her from, for instance, telling him that he has no talent. The play's dialogue suggests parallels with Hamlet and Gertrude, and Czerwonko imbues Konstantin's tragic suffering with flashes of petulance in a manner befitting such a dramatic forebear. Trigorin (Chris Ryan), Arkadina's lover–in contrast to Konstantin, who derides Trigorin's output as middlebrow mediocrity–is a writer with a thriving career, although he feels trapped not only by his obsessive need to write but also by his audience's expectations. And Nina (Mia Vallet), a peer of Konstantin and the one to identify herself with the titular gull, dreams of leaving behind her repressive father for fame on the stage. Complicating the various artistic struggles are romantic ones: impoverished schoolteacher Medvedenko (Rob Riordian) loves Masha (Lauren Guglielmello), who loves Konstantin, who loves Nina, and so on. Rather than happiness, Sea Gull posits, artistic achievement brings at best reduced suffering, and as, for love, well, both art and love emerge as callings that retain their inescapable hold even when all rational evidence argues for abandoning them.

Related to these themes is another of the disjunction between theory or abstraction and real life, and all of these concerns come together in an excellent late scene between Czerwonko and Vallet, a riveting apotheosis of Konstantin's increasing despair and Nina's exhausted, conflicted transformation. Guglielmello's absorbingly shaded Masha and Chris Martin's percipient, humane Dr. Dorn are further standouts in a show characterized by artfully realized performances. Even estate manager Shamrayev (Peter Rinaldi), married to Paulina (Ellie Mae Miller), whose affections of course lie elsewhere, shows an edge that complicates his generally comic character. With minimalist but effective set design, including a border of dried-up flowers, the production makes inventive use of space, from playing at times even in the aisles between rows in the audience to setting Arkadina adrift on a piano to creating naturalistically overlapping dialogue when characters enter or exit down a hallway. The show's live video extends such uses, as when the audience sees a feed of the other characters together in a different room while Konstantin struggles with himself and his calling alone before the spectators; it also allows for effects such as the recursion of the in-camera image, which hints at fragmentation and infinite replication simultaneously–not unlike, arguably, Konstantin's play-within-a-play. Everyone in Sea Gull may be locked in various forms of unhappiness, but for audiences of this impressive production, their suffering will hardly be in vain.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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