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THEATER REVIEW 'THE SEAGULL' : Human Futility : UCSB Theatre Artists Group depicts a naturalistic view of life in Anton Chekhov's classic drama.

July 25, 1991|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the outset of "The Seagull," Masha (Margo Whitcomb) comments on her preference for black attire: "I'm in mourning for my life."

And on that cheery note, we're off--and, well, strolling--through the UCSB Theatre Artists Group's handsome if leisurely rendition of Anton Chekhov's groundbreaking classic. It's a production distinguished by director Peter Lackner's attempt to situate Chekhov in the context of 20th-Century existentialist drama, which followed him.

Deliberate pacing is critical in Chekhov's work, of course. With "The Seagull," Chekhov and his collaborator, Constantin Stanislavsky, rejected the prevailing action-based dramatic formulas of their contemporaries. Instead, they sought to depict naturalistic human conditions in all their psychological complexity, as well as their tedium. For this reason, Chekhov's plays have an intentionally static quality.

"It's a boring game, but you get used to it," the actress Irina (Ann Ames) says to the cross-section of Russian petite-bourgeois society members who gather to play cards at her brother's estate. Though she refers to the cards, she could just as easily be talking about their lives, hopelessly mired in convention.

Instead, that insight belongs to her son, a young writer (Matthew Katics) with true vision and talent whose efforts are ridiculed by most of the adults in the play. Even when his writing later proves successful, his mother admits that she "never finds the time" to read it.

This drama of the monolithic past at odds with the vitality of new perspectives features some outstanding performances from guest artists. Ames plays the self-absorbed actress; Simon Williams is a neighboring doctor who can diagnose a soul, as well as a body (a stand-in for Chekhov himself, who held a medical degree), and Pope Freeman is a mediocre writer who, in ruining the life of a girl (Angela Perry), acts out the play's central metaphor of a man who shot a sea gull because "he had nothing better to do."

The real noteworthy aspect of this production, however, is Lackner's decision to temper the Chekhov-Stanislavsky naturalism with an approach that emphasizes the internal reality of the characters. The detailed period costumes by Dunya Ramicova are offset by Patricia L. Frank's starkly subjective set, which uses a painted tapestry backdrop with slits for doors and situates the adjoining lake, which should be backstage, directly in the audience. In this improbable geography, as well as in the prevailing tone of relentless brooding, lie some intentional allusions to Samuel Beckett and other modern existential dramatists.

In many ways, it's an insightful connection.

Yet there are important differences obscured by the equation. The existentialist stance--something akin to climbing out on a tree branch and sawing off the limb behind you--takes alienation as its axiom and explores its every nook and cranny. The tragedy in Chekhov's plays, in contrast, is balanced by the author's innate humanism and compassion for his characters. In Chekhov's rendering of their finely differentiated emotional nuances lies an inherent rebuttal to their despair, if only they could recognize it.

This dimension is lost in the present production, which, in seeking to avoid lapsing into sentimentality, filters the feeling tones through too fine a sieve. The result is an overall coldness broken by emotional eruptions of volcanic intensity, rather than the sustained rhythm of the human heartbeat that made Chekhov's writing uniquely penetrating.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"The Seagull" will be performed at 8 p.m. today through Saturday at the UC Santa Barbara Main Theatre. Tickets are $12. Call 893-3535 for reservations or information.

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