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The Seagull: Broadway Theatre Archive

He was punk a hundred years before The Clash. He was avant-garde before the term was created. When Russian playwright Anton Chekhov wrote The Seagull in 1896, he knew full well that he was helping create a theatrical — and therefore social and cultural — revolution. The artistic movement known as Realism, which in Russia had Chekhov as its Kurt Cobain, was aimed at sweeping away centuries of false, melodramatic, artificial gestures and oratory that had reduced stage drama to, in his words, rote routine and stale conventions. Like Shakespeare, Chekhov's hugely influential work is a mountain to be scaled by any actor worthy of the attempt. And with the Broadway Theatre Archive's DVD release of The Seagull, we have some of our finest stage actors (Frank Langella, Blythe Danner, Lee Grant, and Olympia Dukakis) having a go at this K2 of the stage. A good production of Chekhov is harder to find than a good production of Shakespeare. This is a good production that began at the famed Williamstown Theatre Festival, then was adapted for airing on PBS's Great Performances "Theater in America" series in 1975. It's an engaging, accessible performance of Chekhov's most popular serio-comic drama (Chekhov insisted The Seagull was a comedy, while its first director, Stanislavsky, insisted on directing it as a tragedy).

Chekhov might have created a sendup of himself in the character of the moody, idealistic young playwright, Konstantin (Langella), who self-consciously aims to single-handedly sweep away theater's rote routine and stale conventions — a tradition embodied in Konstantin's self-absorbed diva mother, Irina Arkadina (Grant). On his uncle's country estate, Konstantin invites family and friends to the debut of his new experimental play, a surreal display of youthful earnestness and pretension. Both Konstantin's play and his audience are failures, an event that starts the first pebble down the dramatic mountainside, so by Chekhov's Act Four everyone involved is pummeled by the resulting avalanche. Konstantin's play stars the young country girl he loves with unconsummated passion, Nina (Danner, then mother to 3-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow). Nina is all world-wide eyes, sweetness, and innocent naivete. Naturally she's doomed. Nina's life changes the instant she's starstruck by the celebrated novelist Trigorin (Kevin McCarthy, unaged two decades after Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Trigorin, in return, falls in love with vibrant, youthful Nina. Too bad he's Irina's lover. It's Chekhov, so there's plenty of love that goes unrequited, unnoticed, or unappreciated. Meanwhile, passions are declared, universal angst shared, the alienation of everyday life revealed, the power of a creative spirit meditated upon, and lives destroyed. Sure, it's a comedy.

The standouts here are Langella and Danner, who while playing characters ten years their junior do so with convincing presence. Nowadays it may be hard to picture Frank Langella as a romantic, somewhat Oedipal, boy — the sort of college artiste you might see wearing a black turtleneck and writing solemn truths in a notebook at a coffee shop — but a perk of the Broadway Theatre Archive series is the opportunity to see familiar screen performers countering their images as set in our popular memory. Nina is one of Chekhov's most famously difficult roles, and Danner glows here, a performance that brought her deserved attention. She gives Nina winsome fragility without becoming cloying, and makes her ultimate tragedy effective without being affected. She is a revelation from start to finish. (And, man, does Gwyneth now take after mom.) There's Olympia Dukakis as Polina, another victim of steadfast yet unreturned love. Lee Grant (stunningly sexy at 48) digs under haughty Irina's skin to make the diva's middle-aged insecurities dimensional and moving instead of merely bitchy.

While the actors here are a fine example of how to do Chekhov, this videotaped adaptation of The Seagull is an example of how not to restage an acclaimed theater event for television. The TV work was directed by John Desmond, who imposed his own "vision" over that of the production's original stage director, Nikos Psacharopoulos. A director's hand should be invisible, but Desmond's is so visible it's distracting. He artlessly composes the camerawork, often setting up awkward shots or relying far too heavily on close-ups. He doesn't simply let us enjoy the play as staged. Possibly in an attempt to make the production more movie-like, he "naturalizes" the first three acts by shooting them outdoors, a device that ironically adds an intrusive layer of artifice to the whole event. (And he lets poor Kevin McCarthy cope with unruly hair in Act Two, making us wish he'd stop the take to apply some hairspray.) Another sore thumb is the original musical score by Arthur B. Rubinstein. It's worth comparing this TV presentation with 1960's The Iceman Cometh; 15 years earlier and a technological epoch more primitive, Sidney Lumet's sensitive taping of that acclaimed theater production is a gold standard that Desmond fell startlingly short of.

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The Broadway Theatre Archive does an exemplary job of preserving the original audio and visual components of these releases. The high resolution of modern digital remastering also preserves any limitations of the source material. Here the image is often very soft (understandably), and colors are muted (by today's DVD standards). Still, it looks quite good and very well preserved indeed. The audio is plenty strong and clean in Dolby center-channel mono. Technical considerations aside, this release of The Seagull preserves what's most important — outstanding performers interpreting Chekhov's masterful script.

The keep-case packaging holds an informative slipsheet, and the DVD extras include stage and screen bios for Langella, Danner, and Grant, plus almost an hour's worth of previews of 13 Broadway Theatre Archive DVDs.

—Mark Bourne



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