Fine acting in newly adapted 'Seagull' ensures Steppenwolf's legacy

  • A sadder and wiser Nina (Caroline Neff) reunites with her onetime love Konstantin (Namir Smallwood) in Steppenwolf Theatre's "Seagull," which inaugurates the company's new in-the-round theater.

    A sadder and wiser Nina (Caroline Neff) reunites with her onetime love Konstantin (Namir Smallwood) in Steppenwolf Theatre's "Seagull," which inaugurates the company's new in-the-round theater. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Steppenwolf Theatre inaugurates its new in-the-round theater with director Yasen Peyankov's adaptation and translation of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull."

    Steppenwolf Theatre inaugurates its new in-the-round theater with director Yasen Peyankov's adaptation and translation of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull." Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members Namir Smallwood and Caroline Neff co-star in director Yasen Peyankov's "Seagull," which inaugurates the company's new in-the-round theater.

    Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members Namir Smallwood and Caroline Neff co-star in director Yasen Peyankov's "Seagull," which inaugurates the company's new in-the-round theater. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 
Updated 5/13/2022 4:04 PM

"Seagull" -- ★ ★ ★

The first act of Steppenwolf Theatre's "Seagull" is standard Steppenwolf. Robust and practiced, it is a solid piece of theater by director Yasen Peyankov, who translated and adapted Anton Chekhov's 1896 tragicomedy to Steppenwolf's stage.

 

And an impressive stage it is. This production -- which pairs longtime members Jeff Perry and Eric Simonson with recent additions Sandra Marquez, Caroline Neff, Karen Rodriguez and Namir Smallwood -- inaugurates the company's in-the-round Ensemble Theater.

Yes, the first act is solid. The second act, however, is exceptional, especially the play's penultimate scene between Smallwood and Neff, a showcase for the masterly acting that has distinguished the company for more than four decades.

Irina (Lusia Strus) and her son Konstantin (Namir Smallwood) have a sort of reconciliation in "Seagull," running through June 12 at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.
Irina (Lusia Strus) and her son Konstantin (Namir Smallwood) have a sort of reconciliation in "Seagull," running through June 12 at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

A play about art and ego, fame and failure, love and regret, "Seagull" centers around a fractured family comprised of actual and aspiring artists (specifically writers and actors) and their friends who observe their drama. And what drama it is; much of it related to unrequited love, which characterizes most of the characters' relationships.

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The action unfolds at the country estate belonging to retired bureaucrat Peter Sorin (Perry, except for May 24-June 5 when Scott Jaeck takes over). Sorin shares his home with his nephew Konstantin (Smallwood, an actor of remarkable depth and vulnerability), an aspiring playwright desperately in need of validation who's determined to radically transform theater. Konstantin's muse is his beloved Nina (the always interesting Neff), a would-be actress who embraces the traditions he rejects.

Their romance is short-lived, unintentionally undone by the carelessly callous, easily manipulated Boris Trigorin (Joey Slotnick), a popular author of middling talent and weak character with whom Nina is infatuated. Trigorin is the lover of Konstantin's mother, Irina Arkadina (a fiercely caustic, capricious Lusia Strus). An aging actress clinging to her celebrity and desperate for attention who values the privileges fame affords, Irina dismisses her son's experimental works as "avant-garde."

Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Jeff Perry returns to the theater he co-founded to play retired bureaucrat Peter Sorin in "Seagull," translated, adapted and directed by Yasen Peyankov from Anton Chekhov's tragicomedy.
Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Jeff Perry returns to the theater he co-founded to play retired bureaucrat Peter Sorin in "Seagull," translated, adapted and directed by Yasen Peyankov from Anton Chekhov's tragicomedy. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Orbiting this dysfunctional family are their equally dysfunctional friends. They include Sorin's longtime doctor Yevgeny Dorn (Simonson), who has ended his affair with the unhappily married Polina (Marquez), wife of tightfisted estate manager Ilya Shamraev (Keith Kupferer). Their daughter Masha (Rodriguez, whose dry humor and contained misery earned her applause mid-scene at Wednesday's performance) follows her mother's example. Pining for Konstantin, who rejects her, she scorns the impoverished, self-pitying Semyon Medvedenko (Jon Hudson Odom), who pursues her.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Peyankov's adaptation -- which he's been tweaking since 2008 -- is snappy and accessible. His production -- funny, well-paced and astutely cast -- unfolds on designer Todd Rosenthal's stage, dominated by the round, elevated platform from which Nina performs the angst-filled monologue Konstantin has written for her. It concludes dramatically with Nina inside a cage, a metaphor for characters trapped by desire, inertia and narcissism.

Irina (Lusia Strus) convinces her lover Boris Trigorin (Joey Slotnick) to stay with her despite his attraction to the aspiring actress Nina in "Seagull," running through June 12 at Steppenwolf Theatre.
Irina (Lusia Strus) convinces her lover Boris Trigorin (Joey Slotnick) to stay with her despite his attraction to the aspiring actress Nina in "Seagull," running through June 12 at Steppenwolf Theatre. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Later, the platform transforms into a dining table, around which the play's most fraught exchanges occur, including a savage argument between a needy son and a mother incapable of comforting him.

The acting is first-rate throughout, with the more performative style (evidenced by the superb Strus) of the first act giving way to a more reflective expression in the second, which is sublimely reflected by Smallwood and Neff's achingly authentic performances.

During the first act, I had a sense that Nina, preoccupied with fame as she is, would evolve into Irina, who is less concerned about her art than the privileges and attention celebrity affords. By the end of the play, I was convinced otherwise. Neff's shift in stance and vocal timbre, physical manifestation of sorrow endured, convinced me the sadder, wiser Nina will never become a star, but may well become an artist.

Karen Rodriguez, left, and Sandra Marquez play a daughter and mother who are both in love with men who don't return their affections in Steppenwolf Theatre's "Seagull," translated, adapted and directed by Yasen Peyankov.
Karen Rodriguez, left, and Sandra Marquez play a daughter and mother who are both in love with men who don't return their affections in Steppenwolf Theatre's "Seagull," translated, adapted and directed by Yasen Peyankov. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

As for Smallwood, I have never seen him deliver a less than excellent performance, and this is no exception. Smallwood's performance is illuminating. His final moments in which Konstantin confronts becoming what he despises are transfixing. And so Steppenwolf's legacy is assured.

• • •

Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650, steppenwolf.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2:30 and 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through June 12. Also 2 p.m. May 25, June 1 and 8. No performances May 15. No 7:30 p.m. performance May 29, June 5 and 12.

Running time: About 2 hours, 30 minutes with intermission

Tickets: $20-$88

Parking: $15 in the Steppenwolf parking lot; limited street parking

Rating: For teens and older; contains adult themes

COVID-19 precautions: Proof of vaccination and masking required

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