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"The Seagull" takes flight at Austin Shakespeare

Written by
Andrew Friedenthal

Next to William Shakespeare, perhaps the most classic of all classical playwrights is Anton Chekhov. The Russian writer’s four plays are constantly in production all across the world, thanks to his richly drawn characters and lyrical dialogue.

It’s no surprise, then, that our city’s own classical repertory company, Austin Shakespeare, is producing a Chekhov play, The Seagull, as part of their current season. We spoke to Austin Shakespeare artistic director—and director of The Seagull—Ann Ciccolella to find out how crafting a Chekhov play for modern audiences compares with doing the same for Shakespeare.

What made you choose a Chekhov play this season?
The Seagull is my favorite Chekhov play because I find it the most positive. Characters are flawed, of course, but every one of them is intriguing. The main quartet are struggling for happiness in their art and in their loves. Even Chekhov’s minor characters are legendary, like the lovelorn Masha, played for us by Helen Merino, who has done leading roles in other Austin Shakespeare shows (including the title role in Hamlet). And The Seagull is a quintessentially ensemble show; I love working with actors and I cast this show for the right mix of talent. The cast is loving each other in the rehearsal process, and I think that will pay off in the performance. The audience will feel it, too.

What translation of the play will you be using?
We will actually be performing my own adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, and it is a privilege to get to work on Chekhov’s text. Honestly, I wanted a very American (as opposed to British sounding) adaptation, and I didn’t find one I liked. So I have been working on crafting our very straightforward version. The actors are handling the language beautifully, and we hope the audience finds it welcoming, moving and inspiring, too.

How does producing a Chekhov play for modern audiences compare with producing a Shakespeare play for that same audience?
Chekhov is very much like Shakespeare in that he demonstrates a full range of human emotions. Characters vary from the extroverted actress, Irina Arkadina, to her troubled son who is striving to develop new forms in his playwriting. Since our Austin audiences are great listeners who appreciate the spoken word, they are usually game to take the challenge of a new journey in the theater. At Austin Shakespeare, we strive to celebrate the best within us as theater artists, so each production has a unique look in artistic collaboration of design, as well as cast. As a director, I try to create an environment where each artist can take risks and fly. Whether Shakespeare or Chekhov, classics challenge us to explore what it is to be human.

How much consideration do you give to updating or modernizing aspects of a play, whether it’s Chekhov or Shakespeare, when directing these classic works?
We are unafraid to alter a word or phrase in Shakespeare if we think it will help make the dramatic moment clearer—or the comedy land. Since Chekhov set his plays in 19th Century Russia, (contemporary for him), we are doing the costumes in period but the language is modern without calling attention to itself. We don’t do plays because they speak to the current moment, but inevitably classics do because they have stood the test of time.

What is it about The Seagull that you hope will resonate with Austin audiences?
Youth and age are a strong theme in this play, as in much of dramatic literature. I think you can at once laugh at, and sympathize with, characters in The Seagull. Our audiences have a wide range in ages; some teens, some elders, many folks in their 20s and 30s. Chekhov even explores the plight of middle age in this play.

What can we look forward to from Austin Shakespeare later this year?
We will be collaborating a lot: in May, our Free Shakespeare in the Park show, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas, will include work with Acia Gray and tap from Tapestry Dance Co. On April 4, we will partner with Austin Opera to read scenes from the great French play Camille (which inspired Verdi) in duets from their upcoming La Traviata. In June, Austin Shakespeare will have our Young Shakespeare company performing Hamlet at the outdoor Curtain Theater, which is a replica of an Elizabethan theater off City Park Rd for two weekends. Then on July 22, we will join the Austin Chamber Music Festival with scenes from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring pianist Michelle Schumann and some little fairies beside our professional actors. As a midsize professional company, part of our strength is partnering with other Austin arts groups to create new and exciting performances.

Austin Shakespeare’s production of The Seagull runs Feb 7-25 in the Long Center’s Rollins Studio Theatre, Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm.

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