Anton Chekhov belongs to the world, but it is difficult to imagine him without Russian language, characters, history and sensibility. London theater companies historically have successfully staged his plays in English while retaining their “real Chekhov” character. Marin Theatre Co. now is taking up the daunting challenge.
On Tuesday, Marin’s small, gutsy company premiered a “new” version, “Seagull,” of Chekhov’s 1896 play, translated by Libby Appel and including recently discovered lines from the original.
Based on Allison Horsley’s literal translation, Appel’s work is excellent. It uses simple words and constructs, conveying the original’s meaning, but not shying away from American idioms and contemporary words — without becoming noticeably anachronistic.
Many Chekhov productions are heavy on atmosphere, often at the cost of straightforwardness, but as one character in “Seagull” says, “You can’t go too far with atmosphere [alone].” Appel’s text brings a balance, and Jasson Minadakis’ stage direction contributes to an equilibrium of atmosphere and action.
The play is about indecisive, thoroughly unhappy people who somehow manage to sink deeper into misery during four acts and almost three hours. A character says: “How anxious everyone is! How fragile!”
In this production, some outstanding actors showcase Chekhov’s poetic language and deep insight.
The extraordinary Christine Albright plays the young romantic heroine, Nina, whose passion and tragedy are at the heart of “Seagull.” She lights up the stage as the girl in the white dress, full of life, and in the difficult fourth-act meltdown begins to come up to the challenge presented by the play.
As Kostya, Nina’s first love who is later abandoned, John Tufts deals effortlessly with a character besieged by varieties of depression and madness.
Against Nina’s white dress and bright personality, Liz Sklar’s Masha is clad in black and gloom. Not long after the play begins, she declares, “I will tear love out of my heart!” How? “Getting married.” The surprising, multilayered line brings both sharply drawn breaths and laughter.
Craig Marker does well with one of the play’s toughest acting challenges, Trigorin the famous author, a self-admitted “dishrag of a man,” who, along with the audience, cannot understand why women like him. But they do, including the selfish monster theater star Irina (Tess Malis Kincaid, who manages to say words like “envy” in three syllables), and poor Nina, soon to be destroyed by the dishrag man.
The large cast works well in ensemble, yet due to writing and directorial choices, the play drags, particularly in the fourth act, and with its lengthy insider musings about the nature of art and fame. Some of Appel’s new inserted material might be responsible — in this case, less might have been more.
Where: Marin Theatre Co., 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays; closes Feb. 20
Tickets: $20 to $48
Contact: (415) 388-5208, www.marintheatre.org