It was a Sunday afternoon. I had just finished brunch and headed to the Schapiro Theatre at Columbia University to see a production of Anton Chekov’s “The Seagull.” But before the play even began, there was slight confusion and nervous whispers amongst the audience members. One of the actors apparently would not be there for the performance because of a serious family emergency. The show might not even go on.
Worried chatter continued until a quarter after 3 when the director, Ari Rodriguez (in the Columbia MFA directing program), walked to the edge of the small stage, in costume and a script in his hand, and told us that he would be playing the part of Konstantin. With that, Nina (played by Sohina Sidhu) scampered on stage and joyfully pushed the curtain back.
If you’re unfamiliar with this Chekhov classic, it follows the artistic endeavors and love triangles of a group of family and friends who vacation on a Russian country estate.
The plot in a nutshell: Schoolteacher Medvedenko loves Masha, the daughter of the estate’s steward. Masha, in turn, is in love with Konstantin, who is in love with Nina. Nina loves Trigorin. Polina, married to Ilya, is in an affair with doctor Dorn. When Masha tells Dorn about her longing for Konstantin, Dorn helplessly blames the lake for making everybody feel romantic (thank you, internet).
Here’s a breakdown of the play:
Sohina Sidhu manages to encapsulate Nina’s nativité with depth, and her quick infatuation with Trigorin and dream of being an actress (good luck with that, girl, trust me) do not seem as silly as they could be. Masha (played by Emma Thorne) entertains the audience with her relentless despair and melancholy. She keeps cigarettes in her stockings and has a vodka bottle handy at all times (my type of girl to go out with). Masha’s expressive eyes roll and widen at the absurdities around her, as well as Madvedenko’s (played so charmingly by Zachary Segel that your heart breaks for him) love for her.
Michelle Bellaver as Arkadina is absolutely captivating: funny, over-the-top, broken, insecure, conniving, thriving, powerful, in love, motherly — she captures it all. Federico Rodriguez as Trigorin is terrific: intelligent and thoughtful, yet increasingly wrapped up in the life fame has created for him. Honestly, Ari Rodriguez played a convincing Konstantin, especially with his beard and manbun, he certainly looked the part of the distressed, unsuccessful writer. Aside from his occasional holding of the script, he seemed to belong on the stage along with the cast.
This production was well-conceived, the script cut to a manageable length, and the actions clear.
Music heightened the dramatic or romantic moments, but not overbearingly so, and, as a reminder of which Chekhov play you were watching, a seagull’s cry could be heard at key plot moments throughout (whew). The Schapiro theatre is intimate, so intimate that from my second row seat (of four rows total) I could see Arkadina’s tears as she berated her son and then asked for his forgiveness and Nina’s tears of exhaustion and delirium when she visits Konstantin in the final act.
The play itself will leave you feeling melancholy and cynical about true love, aspirations, and the role of the artist in society, but do not despair.
If you leave feeling something – anything – deeply at the end (I saw several audience members quickly wipe tears from their cheeks when the lights came up), then you are experiencing life as an artist — deeply and unapologetically. It might be what “The Seagull” (or Chekhov) is trying to accomplish.
For a low-budget, quality theatre-going experience, look no further than the Columbia Arts Initiative website. Up next is Bingo written by Edward Bond and directed by Alice Reagan, and keep an eye on this Ari Rodriguez. At a time when it seems like most entertainment experiences are quick, cheap, loud, and excessively “real” and “witty,” it’s satisfying to be able to settle into a thoughtful, emotional theatre piece.
You don’t have to pay a thing, and at your next night out, you’ll seem SO intellectual when you talk about it with your friends 😉