Could Chekhov’s Treplev be Jewish? Granted, there may be no actual iron-clad evidence for this theory. Even so, premier Hub actress Anne Gottlieb, who is playing the troubled hero’s mother, Irina Arkadina, in the Arlekin Players’ current revival of the Russian classic “The Seagull,” mentioned in a recent interview that company artistic director Igor Golyak brought up this provocative possibility during a discussion about Treplev’s background.
In fact, Golyak has told the Journal that, “There is a mention in the script that Treplev’s father was a merchant from Kiev, which is a class a lot of times given to Jews that came from shtetls, and then Arkadina mentions that people were asking what nationality is Konstantin [Treplev].” A rumor, he added, suggests that a (Jewish) friend of Chekhov, Isaac Levinthal, was in love with someone, shot a seagull, and then tried to commit suicide but was unsuccessful (details calling to mind Treplev). Perhaps these factors help explain why New York director Ari Roth actually had Treplev stage the work’s play-within-a-play as a look at the future of the Jewish people in his 2009 take-off, “The Seagull on 16th Street.”
By contrast, the Arlekin production sticks to the original 1895 text (first staged in 1896), though also with a Jewish director and some Jewish cast members. Gottlieb – who trained under renowned director and acting expert Michael Chekhov, holds a bachelor’s degree in English and theater from Brandeis, and studied Shakespeare and Renaissance literature at Oxford – has been very pleased with the Arlekin Players’ approach to the play.
“I’m just delighted, “she said. “It’s highly professional and yet there’s a lot of family feeling and warmth from the immigrants and many Jews involved.”
The veteran actress – who has received awards for performances in “Anthony and Cleopatra” and “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” – also praised the staging’s process.
“This piece was extremely collaborative,” she explained. “The designers were highly involved in our rehearsal process. There was much experimentation and [attention to] what’s the tone of the play.”
That experimentation and the freshness of this revival come through right from the start. While some have termed the play a tragedy, Chekhov himself considered it a comedy. Gottlieb noted that Chekhov “would see the pathos … the comedy of life. You feel for them [the characters]. We also see them as a little ridiculous.”
Call Golyak’s reading of “The Seagull” a comedy of outsiders – emotional outsiders at that. Frustrated, Treplev is by turns amusing in terms of his assumptions about the reception of his future-probing play and haunting as he struggles to reach understanding with Irina. Eliott Purcell captures Treplev’s vulnerability as well as his moments of buffoonish naïveté. Irina Bordian catches budding actress Nina’s fascination with relative formula writer Boris Trigorin, playing with flair and proper caginess by Nael Nacer.
Purcell and Bordian share real chemistry as their relationship evolves. For her part, Irina rates some sympathy as a seemingly fading legend, if not a Russian Norma Desmond. Gottlieb, decked out in a leather jacket, smartly balances Irina’s volatility in volleying insults with Konstantin and her genuine feeling for her son.
Director Golyak also successfully moves between acting roles, most notably catching Chekhov spokesman Dr. Dorn’s wisdom as a kind of insightful onlooker. He’s given the production a you-are-there immediacy in the intimate Arlekin space, with theatergoers on both sides of scenic designer Nikolay Simonov’s cleverly austere staging area. Jeff Adelberg’s nuanced lighting reflects the ups and downs of Chekhov’s emotionally precarious characters. Occasionally slamming doors add notable moments of farce.
“The Seagull” proves timely no matter what the prevailing dramatic style: traditional, symbolic, experimental, or otherwise. The key to Chekhov’s characters and their fortunes is an understanding of their humanity – whether their hopes and aspirations or their despair and frustrations. Golyak and the Arlekin Players strikingly celebrate the play’s universal power.
“The Seagull,” at the Arlekin Players Theatre, 368 Hillside Ave., Needham, through Dec. 8. For tickets, call 617-942-0022, or visit arlekinplayers.com.