Seagullmachine, the astonishing new production by New York City- based collective The Assembly, is a conglomerate of two vastly dissimilar plays, both of which have made their mark in the transgenerational culture of theater for quite different reasons. Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, first produced in 1896, became just as famous for its notorious opening night failure as it did for its content. Fate would have the final say, because the play would wind up being one of the most enduring pieces of dramatic theater in history. It spawned many adaptions on the stage and on the big screen for over a century. Hamletmachine, a piece of truly renegade performance art, is a postmodern drama by German playwright/director Heiner Müller which had its world premiere in 1979. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Müller’s play breaks tradition in that it’s not centered on a conventional plot, but partially connects through sequences of monologues where the actors blatantly break the fourth wall. Hamletmachine is something of an elusive pop culture species: Because of its idiosyncratic nature, this play is rarely performed today. Both The Seagull and Hamletmachine do have one common thread running through them. The authors of both plays were reportedly obsessed with Hamlet. Several of the characters in The Seagull quote Hamlet, and there is indeed a parallel theme in both plays in regard to the turbulent relationship between mother, son, and the mother’s lover. Meanwhile, Hamletmachine takes The Bard’s ageless play and uses its equally ageless themes to hold a smoke-faded Plexiglas mirror to the very post-Shakespeare problems facing society at its time.
For full disclosure, I was not overly familiar with either of Seagullmachine’s literary antecedents before seeing The Assembly’s production. When the piece kicked off, it was a bit challenging to determine the setting. All thirteen (Yep!) characters are introduced, and it was a bit overwhelming at first. These characters’ names, and the mention of “rubles”. notified the audience that the play takes place in Russia– but many questions soon arose. I had to wonder why the so-called “cultural elite” (Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina, the popular actress, and Boris Alexeyevich Trigorin, a successful author) were mingling with common country folk in this lakeside town. The (purposefully?) ambiguous costume design didn’t offer many clues: We see the local doctor in a lab coat with distinctly American jeans and cowboy boots, a young man in an oversized, ornate teal blue coat and shorts, one lady wearing bright red chunky platform heels, and a writer in a smart suit and… sandals! But when things come together, they come together quickly. We learn that the actress Arkadina (Nehassaiu deGannes) has come to the country estate owned by her ailing but headstrong brother Pyotr Nikolayevich Sorin (Marvin Bell). She has brought her successful but self-admittedly submissive lover, Trigorin (Ben Beckley), a famous writer. Present on the country estate are Arkadina’s 25-year old, aspiring playwright son Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplev (Jax Jackson); pragmatic schoolteacher Semyon Semyonovich Medvedenko (Edward Bauer); the lively manager of the estate Ilya Afanasyevich Shamraev (Rolls Andre), his wife Polina Andreyevna (Elena McGhee), their dysthymic daughter Marya “Masha” Ilyinichna (Anna Abhou Elliott); and the community doctor, Yevgeny Sergeyevich Dorn (Christopher Hurt), who has the tendency to break out in the occasional song or dance. Rounding out the cache of colorful characters are the maid (Emily Caffery), the cook (Gaby Resende), and workman Yakov (Daniel Maseda).
The arrival of the larger-than-life 40-something Arkadina (Her elaborate choice of designer dresses matches her personality, as she performs the play’s resident diva to the hilt) and the reluctant celebrity author Trigorin set the wheels in motion for a series of inter-family tension and romantic triangles– sort of a Slavic Peyton Place. The launchpad is the community gathering together for the premiere of Konstantin’s new experimental theater piece (complete with cheap sound effects, the shock value of the mention of “Satan”, and a spray of sulfur for some olfactory authenticity), being shown on a makeshift stage. The leading lady of the play is a wide-eyed, ambitious neophyte actress named Nina Mikhailovna Zarechnaya (Layla Khosh), who’s also Konstantin’s object of desire. Although Nina gives it her best efforts, the play turns out to be at best too “experimental” for the audience, and at worse a campy, unitntentionally comic misfire. One of the biggest critics is Arkadina (She calls the play “an experimental mess” and “decadent trash”), which only increases the rift between mother and son. Konstantin brings the show to an abrupt end. His infatuation with Nina, however, continues. Later on, he presents Nina with an odd present– Chekhov’s titular seagull, which becomes quite symbolic as the play progresses. The presenting of the strange “gift” also becomes a pivotal moment in the play. In the meantime, Nina becomes intrigued by Trigorin’s artistic charms and soon falls in love. Medvedenko the teacher loves Masha, while Masha, in turn, is in love with Konstantin. In the closing scene of Act 1, Dorn the doctor (who is romantically involved with Polina) declares, “Oh, how dramatic you all are! So much love next to this magical lake!”– which pretty much says it all. Sadly, it proves to be almost entirely unrequited love.
As the play progresses, Nina runs away from her parents to strike out on her own as an actress. Konstantin heads into a downward spiral and attempts suicide, but still marches ahead with his goals as a writer. We learn, either directly or via gossip, that several of the other characters didn’t fare much better with their romantic and/or creative aspirations. Chekhov’s themes of love, jealousy, success, wealth, and status are all here, but the most predominant motif in The Seagull is that of the struggles to find one’s voice. The characters often talk about that struggle: Jackson’s frustrated writer Konstantin bemoans, “How easy it is… to be an artist on paper, and how difficult in real life!” In the unique setting of the first half of Seagullmachine, all of the priveleged dramatis personae are equally vulnerable and no less “human” than their less flashy rural counterparts. As Khosh-as-Nina learns, “How strange to see a famous actress cry, and for such a silly reason! And how strange to see a famous author… and he spends all day fishing and feels overjoyed if he catches a couple of minnows. I always thought famous people were unapproachable and proud. But here I see them crying and playing cards and losing their tempers, just like everyone else.” Later on, when her character seems to have become a bit, shall we say, “unhinged”, Nina admits, ” I know now, I understand at last… that for us, whether we write or act, it is not the fame and glory I wanted that is important, it is the strength to endure.” In Act 1, Beckley-as-Trigorin’s speech, where the author looks upon his talent for writing as something of a bondage (He can’t even engage in a conversation with a pretty girl without thinking of his next story.), is a stunner.
Had The Assembly’s goal been to faithfully bring Chekhov’s The Seagull to the stage, with all of its drama, humanity, and unexpected humor intact, the troupe has succeeded exceptionally well, with a hard-working, enthusiastic cast. But audience members may predict that given The Assembly’s reputation for going, shall we say, “above and beyond”, there’s a big surprise still to come. As those who’ve read it already know, The Seagull ended with a hard-hitting tragedy while the characters were engaging in a game of bingo. Is this how Seagullmachine ends?
Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine is patently up for interpretation on stage, but few productions could give that 1970’s piece of counterculture the treatment it deserves as this show does in its second half– complete with all its original, hard-hitting (and not-always-pretty) sociological reflections. Jax Jackson morphs from the troubled Konstantin to our MC (complete with bright red jacket and top hat) for a very different kind of vibe, as Seagullmachine deviates into a deliciously decadent, occasionally absurdist cabaret show (complete with dancing, comedy, monologues, live music, and the entire cast now reincarnated as your favorite characters from Hamlet) before finally morphing into a larger-than-life, transcendental, genderf*cking, postmodern, surrealist costume ball of blindingly bright color explosion. Auras of extreme morbidness and extreme joy exist side by side. The audience, who was now invited to participate, could hardly see what was coming…
Seagullmachine is far, far more than the sum of its two inspirations. The Assembly’s new production is a multi-faceted, immersive escapade that breaks the rules of theater altogether.
La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, in association with The Assembly, presents the World Premiere of Seagullmachine, created by The Assembly, conceived by Nick Benacerraf, co-directed by Jess Chayes and Nick Benacerraf. Seagullmachine continues through May 5th at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street, New York City. Purchase tickets at www.lamama.org/seagull_machine or by calling 212-352-3101. Visit www.assemblytheater.org/seagullmachine for more info.
Photos by Theo Cote.