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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 487-489
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The Seagull. By Anton Chekhov. Adapted by Thomas Kilroy. Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, Pittsburgh. 25 August 2001.
At the start of Irish playwright Thomas Kilroy's adaptation of the Chekhov classic, when Masha is asked why she is dressed in black, she responds: "It's because I'm so sad. Black is for sadness." Eschewing the familiar and beloved "I'm in mourning for my life," Kilroy signals transgressively right at the outset that authoritative authorship is up for grabs.
Set in rural Ireland on the Desmond estate in latter part of the nineteenth century, Kilroy's Seagull transforms Chekhov's superfluous Russian intelligentsia into the absentee landlords and privileged artists of the Anglo-Irish Celtic twilight and, remarkably, the process does not feel awkward. If anything, these national revisions open up the original play. By demystifying its Slavic exoticism, this new version's Irishness allows the play more room to breathe and permits an American audience to inhabit the space along with its characters. Also, characters' names assume a newness. Irina becomes Isobel, Nina is Lily, and Trigorin is now Aston, among other characters' name changes. Constantine manages to retain his name, but it is familiarized as Con, a very Irish nickname. Although the name changes distance the audience as it accustoms itself to the play's assertion of originality, once the name game has been swiftly completed, the play settles into its new identity without any observable strain.
Indeed, the parallels between the two contemporaneous societies are so sharp and exact as to almost reveal the play for the first time. The characters of artists, landowners, small town officials, and young dreamers are all checked by their fears of a future that will surely sweep them by. The cries for Home Rule, the Land Wars, the rise and fall of Parnell, the burgeoning Irish Literary Theatre, are all inferentially present, as is the coming inferno of the Easter Rising and ruinous Civil War. Kilroy's characters will be as consumed by an unforgiving history as surely as Chekhov's. Con's ambitious anti-realist play, performed on a makeshift stage [End Page 487] [Begin Page 489] on Isobel's estate, is revealed as absurd through its tortuous, Yeatsian invocation of Celtic mythology. But all of the play's tragically ridiculous figures are equally bound by images of a past—theirs and their countrymen's—that never really existed and will only keep them blinded and blindsided by the already turbulent times.
One issue that Kilroy foregrounds is that of identity. The play's cultural and political social strata of Irish, Anglo-Irish, and English crystallizes in Con's struggle to understand and to assert that identity and in Isobel's yearning to return to London to reclaim herself. It may be stretching the point to watch Lily's infatuation with Aston as particularly emblematic of Ireland's cozying up to all things English and then turning self-destructive after the seduction and rejection, yet neither the play nor the production overdoes the connection. It simply exists and feels extraordinarily apt.
Andrew S. Paul's assured direction and the expert playing by the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre keep the play moving dexterously and surprisingly hilariously around these themes. All the performers resonate strongly, creating the kind of ensemble one expects from this play. In particular, Helena Ruoti's aging actress/lover/mother is a touchingly sacred monster, and the scene of her twisting Darren Eliker's Aston away from his interest in Lily is a showcase in great comic acting. At moments, the staging equals the acting in inspiration. In the play's suicidal climax, Paul and designer David M. Maslow create a stunningly brilliant moment. As Con decides to take his life, he takes the reams of paper he has written and flings them up into the air. The pages slowly float over all the characters on the entire stage, including the tableau of Isobel, Aston, and the others seated at the table in the front room. Con walks outside and sits...