Anton Chekhov, the famous 19th century Russian playwright, was a master of subtext. He was able to express meaning without simply stating things outright, yet this gift did not always result in very exciting plays. However, the University of Calgary’s drama department is taking a different approach to Chekhov’s work, one that blends the subtext of the original with modern day sensibilities to create an entirely new incarnation of The Seagull.
Showing from Feb. 12–23 at the University Theatre, The Seagull is an adaptation of Chekhov’s 1895 play. As with most of Chekhov’s work, the play focuses on its cast of eccentric characters as they work through a host of social issues in a way that is both tragic and comedic.
“You’re not going to get a play more play-like than The Seagull,” says U of C drama student and The Seagull actor Jonathan Molinski, “but our performance is not traditional Chekhov.”
A benefit of this non-traditional approach means that there is no set time period restraining the U of C’s adaptation of The Seagull. Chekhov’s references to 19th century art and music are replaced by songs from The Beatles and Frank Sinatra, and the setting has been made more ambiguous and not as specifically Russian as the original. These changes were made to ensure that the play remains relevant to a modern Canadian audience.
“There are parts of [19th century] Russian culture that we wouldn’t understand,” explains Molinski.
This modern revamp is not the only draw for theatre-lovers, however — the strong ensemble of characters is a crucial part of the play. The desire to be loved is a pressing theme throughout all of Chekhov’s work, one that each actor will bring to life through the characters’ intense longings. The cast features many drama department students in their senior level of acting who are about to emerge into Calgary’s acting community, including Sheena Olsen, Noah Herbst-Aylesworth, Megan Owen and Filsan Dualeh.
“What makes it a good play is the characters, not the plot,” says Molinski. “It is about relationships — the relationships of family, bringing in new relations to the family as well — but it’s also about the relationship an artist has to their art.”
Molinski plays the character of Konstantin, a playwright looking to influence and change the face of art who finds himself struggling with how to present his plays.
“Konstantin is always focused on his relationship to art and trying to create new forms whereas his mother is just all static from his point of view,” says Molinski. “Because of that, their relationship is strained — it makes him seem broken.”
Konstantin’s mother Arkadina, played by U of C student Hodan Dualeh, is a revered actress. Molinski notes that Konstantin struggles with his mother Arkadina for many reasons other than their differing views on art.
“Arkadina is a fading actress who had her heyday,” explains Molinski. “To everyone else she is amazing, but Konstantin finds her a tragedy.”
When Arkadina, struggling with her fading appearance and career, returns home, the cast of characters is ecstatic to see their beloved relative and friend. It is Arkadina, however, who disturbs the quiet peace of her hometown by introducing a newcomer, a famous author. Unfortunately for Konstantin, things only get worse as the play progresses as the newcomer complicates all of his relationships. The interaction between every member of the sizable cast as they muddle through creating, maintaining and destroying their relationships and happiness is an emotional trip. It is a story that is achingly human, and is very relatable for any audience member.
U of C students can see The Seagull for free through the Claim Your Seat Program simply by displaying their UCID at the theatre’s box office. This is certainly a play that is not worth missing because of its mix of Chekhov’s brilliant use of subtext and the inventiveness of the U of C’s drama department.