By Anton Chekhov
The Milwaukee Repertory Company Milwaukee, March 1996
OK, I promised to say something about the Milwaukee Repertory Company's Chekhov.
I don't think I can really give you much idea why I thought this production of The Seagull was so wonderful. But let me tell you about three or four things.
One minor one was the set. The stage is a thrust stage, with audience on three sides (sort of like Stratford, Ontario, but a bit smaller). But it also extends back beyond the wall about as far as it projects out. For this production the stage was bare blond wood, and when they needed stuff -- a bench, a living room full of furniture, a lunch set out on tables -- they brought it out. Behind the plane of the back wall was, well, a lake. We couldn't figure out what it was made of, but there was a really thorough lobby display which, among other things, detailed how the lake was made -- it was a whole lot of flattish transparent glass beads, of three or four sizes ranging from maybe an inch and a half across to a half inch, and in about three shades of blue, laid out in a solid layer on a sheet of silver cloth. It was gorgeous, and changed dramatically (as it were) in various kinds of light. And it became a sort of central character in the play, which takes place at a place on a lake in the country. The aspiring young dimwit dramatist stages this lunatic "avant garde" one-character play on a sort of "stage" he's apparently built out into the lake, and at the end burns his scripts, tosses them into the lake, and shoots himself there. But he does all this behind the action on the thrust stage, so that the audience sees him as a sort of backdrop.
This is one example of another thing -- maybe the main thing -- I really liked, which was the amazing ensemble work. Scenery changes were conducted with a skill that matched anything I've ever seen. One scene ends with the aspiring young dimwit actress standing devasted at center stage, toward the back, looking out at the lake. The set people (who were in costume) started disassembling the set and moving the next one on while she stood there, and as she moved off your eyes were just about forced to stay with her, because she was moving at a completely different style and pace than all the action swirling around her as the set changed.
And other things about the staging/ensemble were equally good -- they used two lower entrances at the front corners of the stage, coming up from under the house (again, like at Stratford) amazingly well -- you'd hear the laughter and conversation, for instance, as a number of characters came on, at just precisely the right moment and just ahead of their bursting onto the stage. And when the stage was full of people, it was full of people (again, the comparison is Stratford), but they all knew exactly where the focus was at every moment and I found it almost impossible to look elsewhere -- even though we were sitting all the way around to the side, in row three.
And then there was the translation, which was commissioned for this production, and was, well, speakable. It wasn't modernized, exactly, but the jokes were jokes, and the actors could time them to get laughs, and the dialogue was dialogue.
Oh, yes, and then there were the actors, all of whom were way beyond competent -- not a weak link in the bunch, I didn't think, and it's a big production. There were some not-so-wonderful choices: A friend pointed out, for instance, that the woman who played the aging actress & mother of the aspiring young playwright (who can remember all these Russian names?) had done her as caricature rather than a character, and we didn't have much sympathy for her (and we might have). But I'm convinced it was a choice, not just that she'd tried for a sympathetic character and failed.
I wish I knew more about why there's this wonderful repertory theatre (yes, it's repertory -- they don't mix the plays like Stratford, but it looks as though it's pretty much the same group from production to production, which is part of the reason they can achieve that kind of ensemble) in Milwaukee.
Anyway, there it is. Milwaukee was a surprise to me in a lot of ways; I knew there was beer there, but I didn't know about theatre, and I didn't know about the super art museum, either.