Out With the Old, in With the New: A Different Take on Chekhov

Ira Avneri’s intriguing version of classic 'The Seagull’ is proof that new forms can cause familiar masterpieces to fly high.

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There are two ways in which plays can be staged, especially from the point of view of the director. One sees the theater as a performing art in which the director and actors (and technical crew) breathe life into a text, which is the roadmap, on a particular evening. The other is to view the play as a creation of the director-artist, in which the text is created as part of the process, or is the building block, but never the most important factor. More than a binary opposition, this is the spectrum of theatrical work, with British theater - as a rule of the thumb, and despite many exceptions - representing the former approach. This is also true, mostly, of Israeli mainstream theater. German theater, for example, mostly adheres to the second approach, led by the creative imagination of the director.

The two approaches do not necessarily cancel each other out. Just as one can produce an amazing theatrical experience without it being merely a “performance” of a dramatic, classic text, there are also “performance” pieces that relate to the original play but are, in fact, original, unique theatrical creations. Ira Avneri's “The Seagull” is a fine example, being presented at Tel Aviv’s Tmuna Theater as a "Chekhov adaptation." This is the second time in a relatively short period that Avneri, using the same cast of actors and the same stage, presents his unique vision of a classic piece. Last season I was impressed by the same actors in Schiller's “Mary Stuart.” His choice this time is most apt to the issue I raised above, since apart from being a classic, “The Seagull” is also, if not mostly, a dramatic essay dealing with theater and art.

The piece opens with a play within a play: Konstantin Treplev, a young, rebellious playwright, is about to present to his mother, the famous actress Irina Arkadina, his new play on an outdoor stage, starring his sweetheart, Nina, their neighbors’ young, beautiful daughter. This is more than a mere artistic effort; it is a stylish declaration of war by Kostya on modern theater, where his mother has gained such success. The reference in the play within a play to “Hamlet” is obvious, and so that the viewers won't miss that point, before the rise of the curtain Arkadina quotes to her son several lines by Hamlet's mother, Gertrude.

Kostya's play, presented to his mother and her guests, is utterly, unmistakably different than what Chekhov, his characters (and many of today's viewers and critics) usually regard as "theater." It takes place outdoors on a specially prepared stage. The beginning of Avneri's production, just as in Chekhov's play, is all preparation for Kostya's play as well as for Avneri's piece. Michal Weinberg, in the role of Masha, whose love for Kostya is unrequited, is also a stage hand in black overalls, submissively carrying out Kostya's orders.

Form falls apart

One of the new forms in the Kostya-Avneri production is that the play within a play takes place on the edge of a lake. Kostya (the impressively direct Benny Elder) brings a nylon sheet to the stage, covered with a silver layer shaped as a tiny lake, and folds the sides to create a basin which holds the water that Masha pours into it. Thus, before the audience’s eyes, an illusion is created of a lake and the flickering water, especially when it is screened on the black wall, courtesy of a video camera operated by Kostya, an example of new forms and new techniques.

But apart from our seeing the silvery nylon sheet becoming a symbol of stage effects, when Kostya stops his own show because of his mother's interruptions, the water spills out of the nylon basin and onto the stage. Masha then must mop it up, and continues to do so in the intermission between the second and third acts: Now we see the form falling apart, just as the emotions in the plot of “The Seagull” begin to overflow.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Avneri's production is his attitude towards the central symbol of the play, the seagull. In the play Nina identifies with the seagull, while Kostya shoots a seagull and presents its corpse to Nina (probably symbolizing the way he and his play were shot dead). Trigorin unthinkingly sees the man who shot the seagull as a possible subject for a short story, and in the second act a stuffed seagull is presented onstage. The seagull is used explicitly as a symbol so many times, I began to wonder if it wasn't a parody of Ibsen's clumsy use of a wild duck in his realistic play.

There is no real seagull in Avneri's play: It is signified by the white robe Nina wraps herself in, which Kostya cuts with a utility knife. Eventually, he commits suicide with the same knife he used to cut the robe, which appeared in the fourth act as the clothing of a headless theatrical figure. In Avneri's production, the seagull represents the theater, and the white robe that can set the imagination on fire, but can also be the clothing of the lifeless stuffed animal that is standard theater.

Torn soul

Avneri has done wonderfully with his cast. Since he dropped several minor characters, others were forced to hold dialogues with themselves, as if they're quoting something they heard. Michal Weinberg does this remarkably with Masha's quiet suffering. Shiri Golan is impressive and entertaining as Arkadina. Avi Uria's presence is full of life. Yoram Yosefsberg in the role of Dorn seems to be too much on his own since Masha's mother character was dropped, even though he is a bit of an outsider to begin with. Gaia Shalita-Katz offers youthful enthusiasm and tenderness as Nina. Dudu Niv is worthy of a full piece detailing his role as Trigorin: He manages to exclude any showmanship from his character, and his self-doubting soliloquy is a moment of intimacy with a torn soul who transforms his private drama (he is a successful artist, a slave of his success, envied by both Nina and Kostya, but well aware of his shortcomings) into a moment shared by the audience.

In Chekhov's play, Kostya is an artistic failure who cannot stand the pain demanded of artists in their daily life and creation, which bring more moments of suffering than of elevation. In this production, just as in “Mary Stuart,” Avneri demonstrates how new forms can shed new, exciting life on what seems an all too familiar play. This “Seagull,” in any case, flies high, (for more than three hours), to the great pleasure of the audience.

Tmuna Theater's prodcution of Chekhov's "The Seagull."Credit: Gadi Dagon

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