There’s a scene half-way through Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” where Boris Trigorin, the famous writer, implores Irina Arkadina, a famous actress and Trigorin’s lover, “Let me go, let me go.” He claims to have fallen in love with the young and ethereal Nina, an aspiring actress, and asks his companion to release him so he can take a shot at this kind of pure love. At least, that’s what he says. Irina plays on his vanity and his fears and ends up keeping him in his place, next to her. It is a powerful scene, laced with pathos and sadness as Trigorin comes to admit that he is too weak to take a risk. But more than that, it is a scene of such authenticity and universal appeal as to embarrass us, moderns, with its familiarity. In Irina and Boris, we recognize ourselves, the ways in which fear, vanity and sense of safety conspire to keep us in our place–and miserable. In Chekhov such inaction, or avoidance of action, has huge consequences for many individuals and can lead to tragic results. But even in our atomized, shrunken world, Chekhov manages to get close to the bone in ways which make us laugh, for sure, but also make us hold back our emotions.
Kate Burton, in the role of Irina , and Ted Koch, in the role of Trigorin, play the scene to near-perfection, infusing it with this modern sensibility, no doubt enhanced by Paul Schmitdt’s excellent translation which takes the stuffiness out of language and makes it buoyant and casual. In fact, the premise of the Huntington Theatre’s production is that Chekhov is one of us; he is our contemporary, and every aspect of the production–the acting, the directing, the scene design–all cooperate to drive this point home.
Chekhov is, of course, our contemporary. That’s why we return to him and find his characters and their troubles so instructive. He is our contemporary because he refuses to pass judgment on his characters, and will not allow us to do so. For example, as scene between Irina and Trigorin unravels, we do not know if he is sincere in his love for Nina. We find that out later, but even then, can we condemn him for his original decision to stay with Irina? Have we not been in similar situations where we have chosen the easy way out rather than the perilous road? Trigorin turns out to be a cad, a man enslaved to his vanity and fickleness. But even then, we are hesitant to condemn him, as we are hesitant to judge the overbearing Irina. We cannot uphold even Nina, whose life is soiled by Trigorin, because of the fractured equation Chekhov proposes between life and art, that the former is the sacrifice for the latter, at least in the case of established art. The young Kostya tries to dislodge that equation, both in his larger views of art and in his relationship to Nina, but he fails. In fact, no character in this play of half a dozen memorable characters is free of folly.
In making “The Seagull” such a lively production, director Maria Aitken does something else: With the help of a superb translation and an ensemble cast, she manages to English (as verb) Chekhov, which is no small feat! What a treat!