Arlekin’s reimagined ‘Seagull’ speaks to us anew

Nael Nacer and  Irina Bordian in the Arlekin Players’ “The Seagull.”  Photo courtesy Irina Danilova.

NEEDHAM – You can tinker with the classics, to be sure. But you must always respect the text.

So while Anton Chekhov’s “the Seagull” remains the classic it has always been and always will be, what’s wrong with thinking outside the box when it comes to presenting it?

So the Arlekin Players, a troupe celebrating their 10th anniversary, are presenting a  newly adapted version of the play conceived  and directed by Igor Golyak, the troupe’s artistic director.

The new script translation is by Ryan McKittrick and Julia Smeliansky with Chekhov’s letters used in the script, as translated by Laurence Senelick.

Golyak has fashioned a new prologue and epilogue to the play  and has cast himself as the director of the piece. In the prologue,  as the director, he intersperses pieces of Chekhov’s letters that are particularly poignant, including doubts the playwright had about his own talent , and the future of “The Seagull” itself, at a time when the play was first produced and believed to be a miserable failure.

Golyak as the director – he will also later portray Dr. Dorn — has a long discussion with the actors portraying Chekhov’s characters about the acute tension between art and life.

He assigns the roles to be played, at one point second-guessing himself and taking an actor from the audience itself to play a role.

Igor Golyak, artistic director of the Arlekin Players

It all leads up to the actual performance of “The Seagull” as Chekhov wrote it. The production benefits from four superb performances in key roles Nael Nacer as the successful novelist Boris Tigorin; Anne Gottlieb as his lover, the aging but celebrated actress Irina Arkadina; Elliot Purcell as the mercurial young playwright Konstantin Treplev, Irina’s son; and Irina Bordian as Nina Zarechnaya, the beautiful young actress.

“The Seagull” begins in the late 19th Century, on an estate in the Russian countryside, and Act I  begins outdoors, next to a beautiful lake, suggested by a sandy area in Nikolay Simonov’s set design, with the sand swept away to reveal the lake. The estate is owned by Peter Nikolaevich Sorin (Dev Luthra), a retired civil servant of the Russian Army, and managed  by the often-difficult-to-deal-with Ilya Shamrayev (Alexander Petetsky). Irina is a frequent visitor in the summer.

Shamraev’s daughter is Masha (Darya Denisova), whom we know is one of several unhappy characters, saddled with a soulless teacher named Semyon Semyonovich Medvedenko (Eric Andrews), while she is very much in love with Konstantin.

Konstantin is very much in love with Nina, whom he has cast in one of his eclectic plays. Nina, meanwhile, will come under the spell of an infatuated Boris Tigorin, setting.the stage for Konstantin’s unsuccessful suicide attempt off-stage.

Nacer performed the role of Medvedenko in the Huntington Theatre Company’s celebrated 2014 production of “The Seagull” starring Kate Burton. Here, as Tigorin, he gradually reveals himself as besotted with Nina; the most riveting scenes in the piece have to with his character and Gottlieb as Irina. After Tigorin makes Irina fully aware of what he is asking her to do, Irina pleads to be left with a shred of dignity when Tigorin requests her to stay on at the estate for another day so he can complete his conquest.

Meanwhile, there is no happiness to be had for the tormented Konstantin, who as an artist does not see himself as bound by the traditional theatrical norms. The play he presents on a makeshift stage on the estate does not impress his sister, who fears being upstaged by her talented brother and being pushed out of the spotlight.

In works as disparate such as Spekaeasy’s “Hand of God” Off The Grid’s “The Weird” and Commonwealth Shakespeare’s “Old Money,” Purcell has shown himself to be a major rising talent, a status undisturbed by his work alongside such well-established pros as Nacer and Gottlieb.

The play takes place in the center of the theater,  Doors to allow for quick and easy exits and entrances of the country estate of Theater-goers are seated at two ends of the theater A portable arch  moves both to the front and rear of the theater depending on which scene and the playing space

The Arlekin Players were established in 2009 by a group of Russian immigrants to “offer a unique, creative home in the new world where artists from different backgrounds could experiment and learn from each other.”

While the troupe has performed many works in Russian, their recent remounting of their production of “The Stone” was also performed in English.

“The Seagull” is performed in English, but at times, actors will deliver dialogue in Russian, Italian, French and, I believe, Spanish. It’s hard to see how it works as a theatrical device, though.

In his directors’ notes Golyak explains his decision to include different languages  “By mixing different languages, and going deep into exploring Chekhov’s world of creation through his journals, letters and the play itself, we are looking to answer our own struggles as artists and as people in the 21st Century.

“The alienation of people in the play we find very relevant today, where countries, just as people struggle to listen and hear, look and see and ultimately connect to find compassion.”

The classics were not written in stone. By reimagining them, we can find in Chekhov’s characters relevance and connection to our lives today, many decades later.

The Arlekin Players’ production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Adapted  and directed by Igor Golyak, based on script translations by Ryan McKittrick, Julia Smeliansky and Laurence Senelick. Scenic design by Nikolay Simonov. Costume design by Nastya Bugaeva. Lighting design by Jeff Adelberg. Original music composed by Jakov Jakoulov. At the Arlekin Players Theatre, 368 Hillside Ave., Needham, through Dec. 8.

The cast of the Arlekin Players’ production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Photo by Irina Danilova