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A CurtainUp Review

The Notebook of Trigorin
By >Dolores Whiskeyman

The world of Anton Chekhov is a melancholy place where love is unreturned and ambition thwarted. Here, the light is ever fading against the leafless trees and the maidservant, always in black, forever bemoaning her passionless marriage to an insufferable schoolmaster. 

Upon this template, Tennessee Williams has sketched The Notebook of Trigorin. a "free adaptation" of Chekhov's The Seagull, which makes its Washington premiere at The Keegan Theatre in Arlington. 

As in the original, The Notebook of Trigorin offers an absurdly convoluted tale of love, lust, vanity, and bad aim with a pistol. Consider: Masha loves Constantine who loves Nina who loves Trigorin, who loves, apparently, just himself, but tolerates the passion of Irina, while flattering himself with the affections of Nina and - in Williams' version, anyway - skinny dipping with Yakov on the sly. 

With a storyline like that, you expect a few laughs -- and you get them. But the black humor that inhabits all of Chekhov's plays bleaches to a pale mirth in this version. Refracted through his lens, Chekhov's biting social satire becomes an elegy -- but a lovely one, and under Mark A. Rhea's direction, exquisite. 

So leave Chekhov at the door and deal with this play on its own merits. Though the storyline is mostly Chekhov's -- with a few variations -- the sensibility and the language is all Tennessee, lovely and lilting and poignant at points. The strength of the play lies in characterizations so vivid that they live on in the imagination long after the lights have dimmed. Williams renders his characters more sharply than Chekhov. Dorn, the doctor -- a staple character in Chekhov -- is downright nasty -- and Masha the overseer's daughter, is a lush. 

If it did nothing else, Rhea's production proves that the power of theatre to transport us lies not in its props and costumes and sets, but in the charged emotional energy between actor and audience. The seduction begins with the first beat of the play -- when Jeremy Beck, as Constantine, literally leaps into the scene, and it continues until the final act, when Constantine slams shut his writing desk and reaches oh so slowly for a drawer the audience knows contains a pistol. He is completely defeated, completely still, his back towards the audience, his face towards the lake, and as his fingers work the drawer open and fold back the velvet lining, the audience is absolutely breathless, watching him. All the while Beck never looks down. His eyes are focused on the lake beyond the window, the place of his great humiliation. 

It is at the lake that the play opens-- twilight on the country estate of Constantine's mother, Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina, a prominent but aging actress of the Moscow stage. Constantine is preparing to present his first play, with a neighbor girl in the lead. But poor Nina (Linda Jean Chittick) isn't quite up to the role. Nor is she up to the intensity of Constantine's affections; her eye is drawn instead to the writer Boris Alekseyevich Trigorin (Ian LeValley), Irina's younger lover. 

Beck lures us into great sympathy for Constantine, an annoyingly depressive youth who cannot attract the love of the woman he wants nor shake the obsessive attentions of the woman he doesn't. As Constantine cries out for "new forms, new forms!" we realize that his play is really an old form - a child's clumsy ploy for maternal approval. He doesn't get it, of course. For as he observes, in Moscow, Irina is an energetic 32 - at home, in the presence of her 25-year-old son, she is a tired 43 -- and she resents it. 

Yet Rena Cherry Brown brings vulnerability to Irina, softening that enormous vanity and making it easier to forgive the offhand manner in which she dismisses her son. Irina's neediness drives her; she is hopelessly in love with Trigorin, an opportunist who -- everyone knows -- is as bored by her as she is inflamed by him. Desperate to be loved, Irina cannot give love, and her insecurities ravage her son, whose hopeless pursuit of Nina reflects the rejection he feels from his mother. 

At the center of the psychological war sits Trigorin, a cool observer with a notebook. At once charming and manipulative, petulant and brutal, he is the agent of tragedy and remains untouched by it. As Williams recasts him, he is also a closeted homosexual - but for what purpose? That is never clear, and it is the weakest element in the play. The conceit, once raised, ultimately goes nowhere; the outcome of the play is the same and Trigorin's role in it unchanged. His sexuality becomes an aside - more of a distraction than an enhancement in a story driven by the sexual frustrations of its principals. 

But as Trigorin, LeValley is fascinating in his restraint, the intimations of his secret life revealed ever so subtly. In the way that he settles into a chair, in the turn of his head or the flicker of a smile across his face, LeValley shows us Trigorin's true nature long before Williams does. In this fashion, Rhea saves Williams from himself, and prevents his delicate meditation on the frailty of human nature from deteriorating into a politically incorrect cautionary tale about the impact of an overbearing mother on the personality of her weak-willed son. 
Ed. Note: This marks CurtainUp's fifth review of a variation of The Seagull. Here are links to the others: 
The Seagull (Blue Light Theater - NY)
The Seagull: The Hamptons: 1990 (NY)
The Seagull (Pearl Theater - NY) 
by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Mark A. Rhea 
ith Michael Patrick Smith, Kerri Rambow, Jeremy Beck, Kit Young, Stan Shulman, Ian LeValley, Linda Jean Chittick, Joyce Peifer, Timothy Hayes Lynch, Rena Cherry Brown, Daniel Lyons, and Joseph Baker. 
Set Design: George Lucas 
Lighting Design: Dan Martin 
Costume Design: Susan Chiang 
Sound Design: Tony Angelini 
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with 15-minute intermission 
The Keegan Theatre, 1500 North Glebe Road, Arlington, Va (in Mount Olivet United Methodist Church) (703) 757-1180 
Opened Oct. 14, 1999 closes Nov. 14, 1999 
Reviewed by Dolores Whiskeyman Oct. 26 based on an Oct. 24 performance

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