The Instigators’ adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, directed by Lillian Meredith, uses immersive elements to enhance and punctuate both large and small moments. Actors break the fourth wall, and the staging brings actors in line with the audience.
In Chekhov’s plays, family is not necessarily a comforting presence, and love is not at all romantic. Both can destroy you. The play opens on Irina Arkadina’s (Kristen Vaughan) arrival to the Russian countryside to visit her son, Konstantin (Taylor Petracek), a depressive who’s trying his hand at writing, and her brother, Sorin (Roger Rathburn), who’s retired from the State Department and trying to enjoy his country estate. Irina is a famous actress with a big ego, and she has not been a great mother. Konstantin is still vying for her attention and hopes that his play will impress her. But his play, which employs “new” forms, instead offends her; that upsets Konstantin, and her visit spirals into conflict.
Masha (Siena D’Addario), the daughter of the estate’s caretakers, is in love with Konstantin, but Konstantin is in love with Nina (Jeanette Dilone), who thinks she aspires to be an actress, but isn’t sure. She stars in Konstantin’s play. When Nina meets Boris Trigorin (Fergus Scully), Arkadina’s lover, she becomes smitten with him because of his fame as a writer. She thinks his life is glamorous and wonderful even though he claims writing is a compulsion that never lets him rest. Trigorin falls in love with Nina, but only temporarily. Although he has an affair with her, he remains with Arkadina. When they come back the next year, they seem the most settled of all as a couple, but it’s possible it could happen all over again.
In addition, many of the characters seem lost in different ways. Nina says, “I wish someone would tell me what to do.” She flips a coin to see whether she should pursue acting or not. Trigorin doesn’t seem to have much of a spine and can’t believe “women are attracted to this quality.” Yet his fame and an obsequious nature do indeed make him attractive to women.
Remorse and cynicism are also sentiments that permeate all characters, both young and old, for different reasons. Sorin wanted to be a writer and get married, but never did either. Nina, who wears black all the time because “she’s in mourning for her life” tries to do the right thing by marrying Medvedenko (Emmanuel Elpenord), the schoolteacher, but she doesn’t like him and can’t hide her contempt for him. Konstantin is forever tormented by his mother’s neglect, and when he comes on with a rifle, it’s certain something bad will happen. After all, Chekhov believed that every element on stage had a purpose.
Only two characters seem satisfied and even happy. Yakov (Kazuhiro Imafuku), a hired farmhand, has a little twinkle in his eye and spring in his step. Dorn (Todd Licea), the country doctor, has done everything he has ever wanted to in life: traveled, eaten well, and had many good conversations with people along the way.
It’s surprising that immersive theater did not become more popular after the sensational success of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, a site-specific adaptation of Macbeth in which spectators were divided into small groups and taken to areas of the McKittrick Hotel, to wander and experience the play in intimate and close-up ways. Punchdrunk’s immersive theater is more along the lines of Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, in which, through physical proximity and intense dramatic rendering, the senses are assaulted.
The small, informal space of the Access Theater gives the feeling of sitting in someone’s living room, but it doesn’t lend itself to a real immersive experience. Sometimes the actors sit near or even behind the audience while they execute different actions like fishing, whistling, running, and creating animal sounds. Still, there are nice moments. For example, when Trigorin goes fishing, he crouches down just behind the first row of spectators and mimics the sounds of nature. The Instigators’ immersive experience is subtler and gentler than Artaud’s or Punchdrunk’s. Perhaps that’s OK for Chekhov, though, who is a subtle and gentle playwright, even though everyone and everything is in tumult.
The Instigators’ production of The Seagull runs at Access Theater (380 Broadway at White Street) through June 18. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and at 7:30 p.m. Sundays. The theater is accessible from the A/C/E/N/Q/R/6 trains at Canal Street or the 1 train at Franklin. Tickets range from $7.50–$30, available at www.instigators.eventbrite.com.