Director Vladimir Rovinsky set out to make his production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull more authentically Russian — by making it less stereotypically "Russian."
American audiences are used to seeing Chekhov's characters leading lives of quiet desperation. Rovinsky, however, gives us people leading lives of loud desperation in an attempt to capture the humor and humanity that makes these 19th-century strivers still beloved to their latter-day Russian descendants.
The resulting production, now being staged at the Southern by Theatre Novi Most, suggests what we might have seen if the late movie director Robert Altman had ever decided to do Chekhov. The struggles of the central characters are balanced with the antics of a boisterous supporting cast, making this Seagull an expansive pageant of pathos.
It's not for everyone. Theatergoers who like their Chekhov dry and intimate will need to buckle their seatbelts as Rovinsky's cantankerous cast comes parading out along the web of boardwalks created by set designer Michael Burden. The production starts with a thump, as young playmaker Konstantin (Nathan Christopher) drums his staff against the floor and calls to his mother (Barbara Berlovitz), establishing a conflicted relationship that will become central.
Another conflicted relationship is the one between Konstantin and Nina (Shelby Richardson), an ingenue actress who falls into the arms of Trigorin, a capricious writer (Paul de Cordova) who's ostensibly an item with Konstantin's sharp-tongued mother. The despairing Konstantin shoots a seagull and delivers the bloody bird to Nina, only to have Trigorin appropriate the metaphor as the inspiration for a short story.
Rovinsky's approach is most effective with characters like Masha, a tragic but vital figure on the margins of the story who snaps to life in Julianna Drajko's pointed performance. She may be cruel to her hapless husband (Matt Wall), but you still feel like it would be fun to share a samovar with her sometime.
An already full stage is made fuller by an ensemble of actor-musicians who move about filling in minor roles and playing composer Johanna Gorman-Baer's varied score. They're used to great effect during an aborted performance of Konstantin's symbolist play, which comes off like something George Crumb might have cooked up for a stoned avant-garde picnic in the Summer of Love.
This production never misses an opportunity to push it. There's Berlovitz's physically overwhelming seduction of de Cordova, a bingo game that turns into a macabre musical moment, and mobs who cross the stage, silently roaring with laughter, to underscore their blithe self-satisfaction. It's certainly Chekhov like you've never seen it before, and it's often highly amusing, but as the failed experiments stack up next to the successful ones, Rovinsky risks audience burnout.
Ultimately, it's Richardson who draws us back to the heart of the matter. Amid the hubbub, she holds tight to Nina's sincerity. In a show that's often larger than life, Richardson reminds us that life itself is big enough.
IF YOU GO:
Theatre Novi Most at the Southern Theater
1420 S. Washington Ave., Minneapolis
Through March 27; 612-340-0155