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 V.22 No.7 | February 14 - 20, 2013 

Performance Review

Coming Home to Chekhov

Seasoned Actress Sobel Directs “The Seagull”

Mark Hisler & Yolanda Maria Knight
Alan Mitchell Photography
Mark Hisler & Yolanda Maria Knight
The stage is a scuffed square in the middle of a black-painted room. Rows of chairs rise around it, bleacher-style, on all four sides. No curtains or fancy sets divide those watching the action from the action itself. This is the Vortex, Albuquerque’s highly regarded community theater now in its 36th yearand, as it happens, a fitting home for the stripped-down intimacy of Anton Chekhov’s classic drama-comedy, The Seagull.

Paul Hunton
Alan Mitchell Photography
Paul Hunton
From its vantage point at the end of the 19th century, just a few decades after Russia’s serfs were freed and its once-wealthy estates began their inevitable decline, The Seagull teases out themes surrounding artistic longing, love and self-fulfillment. As the play opens, well-known actress Arkadina (Yolanda Maria Knight) has come with her boyfriend to visit the country estate of her aging brother. Her charisma and star power are dazzling, but she’s prone to energetic clashesmost notably, with her son Trepliov (Paul Hunton), a playwright whose most recent work gets staged in The Seagull’s opening act. Alas for Trepliov, Arkadina isn’t what you’d call an overly affectionate mother.

Just minutes into the performance of her son’s unintelligible symbolist play, her withering comments begin. “He didn’t choose any kind of ordinary play,” she complains to whoever will listen, “but filled our ears with this decadent drivel.” Ouch.

Combining a do-nothing naturalism with trenchant psychological observation, The Seagull has all the potential in the world to lapse onstage into tedious yammering about rubles and valerian drops. In the script, it’s a uniquely Chekhovian knack that elevates so much griping among characters to such profound truths about art and life, but the significance could all be lost on a director or performer who doesn’t understand how to unpack the material.

Alan Mitchell Photography
Fortunately, director Joanne Camp Sobel and her talented cast at the Vortex make much of the understated script. Thanks to skillful performances and judicious management of the 360-degree stage, the play’s potency shines beautifully through. Although this is Sobel’s first time directing, she’s a longtime professional actor who’s been nominated for a Tony and appeared on several TV shows you’ve heard of. An Albuquerque resident since 2009, she and her husband left New York City and their long history with The Pearl Theatre to be closer to family.

A week before opening night, Sobel sat down with me to discuss The Seagull. “In Chekhov’s play, every character seems wanting to be understood, or to do something,” she explains, “rather than to take in the other characters’ needs. It’s very human.” This, she believes, is the reason Chekhov thought of the play as a comedy. “People actually tell each other in The Seagull who they are and what they want, and they just don’t listen, you know?”

Alan Mitchell Photography
As an example, she offers the case of Nina (Amanda Machon), an aspiring actress, and Trigorin (Mark Hisler), Arkadina’s novelist boyfriend. “Trigorin tells Nina when they first have their scene together that being famous is torturous,” Sobel points out, but Nina’s too busy idolizing the older man to heed his warning. Instead, she rejects the failed writer who loves herpoor Trepliov, whose unhappy sensitivity is sympathetically projected onstage by Huntonin favor of the famous writer, already attached, who’ll just end up destroying and discarding her. The well-paced restraint of Hisler’s performance as Trigorin is among the play’s strongest, and the believably modest way he allows Nina to attach herself to him (when she’s young and exuberant, such a boon to the writing) contrasts sharply with his later pretense that nothing at all has happened.

Among many appropriate choices in this play, The Seagull isn’t staged in period costume. It works because, without those odd old clothes, the audience can build a closer rapport with the characters. Sobel’s direction seems clearly focused on substance.

With certain roles, she says, “When you work in that playwright’s work you feel like, Oh, I’m home, this is where I live. And Chekhov is that way to me. He makes so much sense to me.” In Sobel’s hands, The Seagull retains its complexity. It’s a troubling examination of how both art and love can tangle the human heart, but one thatsomehowmakes a kind of sense.

What: Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull
Where: The Vortex Theater, 2004 1/2 Central Avenue, across from UNM
When: Through February 24th
How much: Tickets are $18, $10 for Student Rush.
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