I was woefully unprepared for the Huntington Theatre’s performance of The Seagull. I knew essentially nothing about the playwright, Anton Chekhov, nothing of the play’s plot, and nothing of the fame of its primary actress, Kate Burton.
So the fact that I was (at times simultaneously) moved, amused, and deeply impressed by The Seagull—despite my ignorance—is itself a testament to the play’s quality.
Directed by Maria Aitken and showing until April 6, The Seagull begins with the arrival of famous actress Irina Arkadina and her lover, Boris Trigorin, to the country home of her older brother. As members of Russia’s artistic elite, the pair stirs jealousy and frustration in Arkadina’s son Konstantin, a struggling writer whose attempts at creation only result in his mother’s mocking disapproval. Conversely, the girl Konstantin loves is enamored by the couple’s achievements, leading to a web of jealousy and complication.
Kate Burton plays wildly successful actress and less-than-successful mother Arkadina—and her actual son plays Arkadina’s son, Konstantin—though she assured the audience after the show that her relationship with her son in no way resembled the on-stage tumult. Acting seems to run in the Burton blood—Kate Burton is the daughter of famous actor Richard Burton—but the middle Burton has decades of theatre and television experience all her own. In her decades-long theatre career, she has played nearly every leading woman Chekhov has to offer; now she is also known for her television roles in both Grey’s Anatomy and, currently, Scandal.
Even if The Seagull lacked its stellar cast, the effects in the production would still be flawless. It is worthwhile to take note of the beautiful set and superb lighting; even the sounds that accompany the scenes—music in the background or laughter in another room—are perfectly aligned. When the flow of (incredibly rich) dialogue halts, take a moment to appreciate these subtleties—especially in the final scene, when there are moments to take in the impeccably manufactured stormy night.
But what is most important is that Chekhov’s play itself is light-hearted and emotional and thought-provoking and everything you could want out of a piece of art. Each character—even those with seemingly secondary roles—serve as fully developed individuals with relatable flaws and desires. (The relationship between Masha, who harbors years of unrequited love for Konstantin, and the doting schoolteacher she eventually settles on “out of boredom” is one example.) But the play contains no hero, because ideal people don’t exist, and if Chekhov does one thing, he creates substantial, real people.
The play’s four major characters each quite clearly express their own fears and anxieties, jealousies and dreams. Even among this rich individuality, all of these personalities and experiences are intimately entwined, whether romantically or filially. In this way, Chekhov addresses not only the surface concerns the dialogue engages in—love, art, society, and class—but also delves into the nature of relationships and self, which the cast succeeds in developing from the first moments of the production to the last words.
Chekhov himself labeled The Seagull as a comedy, and insofar as the audience will find itself laughing and smiling through much of the show, this may be true. But its themes are far from comedic, and even its lighter dialogue tends to give way to satiric undertones at the least. The depth of the play is unmistakable—to simply label it as a comedy would be to vastly underrate it.
More accurately, The Seagull is a story about humanity, which includes comedy, tragedy, and everything in between. Essentially every aspect of The Huntington’s production captures this humanity in an engaging, entertaining way. And luckily for students, it is only a few BU shuttle stops away.