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The madness of theater

Anton Chekhov’s 'The Seagull' mines comedy and tragedy from the insanity of creatives

Theater is hell in Chekhov’s tale of writers, actors, and egos. Photo credit: New Muses Theatre Company

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Though its setting is established as a cozy lake house getaway, much of The Seagull feels as though it takes place in a nightmarish purgatory where writers and actors -- suffused with every choking bit of egotism, depression, insanity, megalomania, and grinding fraud complexes -- are forced to endure one another's company until the bitter end. Indeed, for a few days, the house is populated with actors and writers who speak with pompous grandiosity about their own works, while cruelly, almost obliviously cutting down the work of their peers. In theme, if not necessarily plot, I found some similarities with the somewhat polarizing film Birdman, which also ruminates over the madness of theater.

Penned by Anton Chekhov in 1895, and now presented by the New Muses Theatre Company, The Seagull primarily concerns Nina (Lara Dohner), Konstantin (Joel Thomas), and Trigorin (Niclas Olson), and the doomed relationship that develops between them. As guests are set to arrive at the lake house, young playwright Konstantin is readying the debut of his new play, starring Nina; adding to this pressure-filled situation is the audience, which includes Konstantin's mother Irina (Angela Parisotto) -- a successful actress in her own right -- and the prolific, revered writer Trigorin, who also happens to be shacking up with Irina. Konstantin's play, it turns out, is more of an avant-garde monologue than a drama, and the audience brutally heckles it.

Much of The Seagull's narrative thrust is conjured in the aftermath of that disastrous premiere: Konstantin falls into the pits of self-pity and despair, while Nina and Trigorin begin a tentative romance (with Konstantin being not-so-secretly in love with Nina, this doesn't exactly help his depression). Interestingly, though, with all the pieces being set in place for what could easily morph into a farcical comedy or a staggering tragedy, The Seagull instead chooses to just live with these characters as they enthusiastically muse on the nature of theater and the creative process, in ways that are interchangeably thoughtful, shallow, and wonderfully lacking in self-awareness. All along the way, though, their fates are slowly moving toward an unavoidable conclusion.

Though this is an ensemble, with even minor characters given their moments to shine, the core foursome makes up a beautifully solid bedrock. Thomas lends Konstantin a wounded, tightly-wound energy; Dohner establishes Nina's optimism and ambition as honest, not calculating, which makes her arc hit all the harder; Parisotto shows a buried vulnerability underneath Irina's glib, social butterfly exterior; and Olson plays a great horse's ass, relishing Trigorin's lengthy monologues about what a pain it can be to be a gifted writer.

Staged in the intimate black box of the Dukesbay Theater, with adaptation and direction by Olson, this is the best use of that modestly sized space I've seen in some time. The audience looms over what is essentially a slow-motion car wreck, as the show's earlier forays into cringe comedy descend into full-blown sorrow, with a bracingly abrupt climax. A fantastic end to New Muses' 10th season.

The Seagull, 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, through Aug. 25, $10-$15, Dukesbay Theater, 508 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, 253.254.5330,

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