MFF: seeking love, causing pain in ‘The Seagull’
Saturday, May 5, 7:45 p.m.
MKA Upper School, 6 Lloyd Road
Q&A with director Michael Mayer to follow
By GWEN OREL
Some plays are actor-proof.
Some plays should not be done at all without a powerhouse actor in them. “King Lear.” “Death of a Salesman.” “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Anton Chekhov’s 1896 play demands a strong ensemble. But without a strong Irina Arkadina, the aging actress whose withheld approval from her son Konstantin (Billy Howle) sets a tragedy in motion, the play does not work.
In the new movie “The Seagull,” Annette Bening plays the part. The film recently played at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” “American Idiot”) has seen many productions, including a famous Williamstown Theatre Festival production, the 1968 Sidney Lumet film made for television, one with Meryl Streep in Central park in 2001, and he’s taught scenes from it to actors at NYU as well. The screenplay/adaptation is by Stephen Karam (2016 Tony Award-winning “The Humans;” “The Cherry Orchard”) and the cast includes Saoirse Ronan as innocent Nina, Billy Howle as Konstantin (the pair can also be seen as lovers in MFF in “On Chesil Beach”), Brian Dennehy, and Elisabeth Moss as Masha, who pines for Konstantin.
“The real reason to do this now, is Annette Bening,” Mayer said. “She was born to play this role.”
Irina is a delicate role. She says hurtful things to her son, who is an aspiring writer. She reacts jealousy to the youthful, pretty Nina, even before her own lover Boris Trigorin falls for the girl. But she’s also vulnerable. Her fear of showing the world she’s old enough to have an adult son drives her to cruelty. At one point she stands next to Masha, the 20-something daughter of the housekeeper, and asks the room who looks younger?
The camera shows Bening’s aging neck, a servant’s skeptical look. Few actresses playing an aging actress would allow themselves to look so old. (Bening, at 59, is arguably older than Irina as written, who boasts that she’s twice the age of Masha, who is 22, but either way, Irina is clearly in deep denial.)
“This is where the genius of casting comes out,” Mayer said. “Bening isn’t vain that way. She looks her age. She’s a beautiful woman, don’t get me wrong, she’s gorgeous.”
Bening the actress is clearly different from Irina Arkadina the actress. The four-time Academy award nominee, star of “Being Julia, “Bugsy,” “American Beauty” and many others, “is absolutely dedicated to creating character, without pandering to the audience and without begging them to like her,” Mayer said. “She is a pure actress in that way. She’s without vanity. Every character she plays is deeply flawed, and Annette doesn’t attempt to cover anything up.”
FILMING THE PLAY
While Karam added some lines to keep the film naturalistic, he also omitted many, Mayer said. The play, without cuts, runs more than two hours long. And much of what Chekhov does with soliloquies can be done with close-ups and reaction shots, the director explained.
“Our thought was, what would Chekhov do if he were making a film? Where would he put the camera? Who is he interested in, in this moment, and in this moment, and in this moment?” (Spoiler: the play’s famous last line is omitted — because we’ve seen it happen, and don’t need to be told.
Rehearsals were sometimes scattershot, including one in the basement of the Belasco theater where Mayer was directing “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the director said with a laugh. Production Designer Jane Musky, who found the location, a Russian manor house built early in the 20th Century in Monroe, New York, “went to town, with very little money, and really transformed it.”
The movie is set in 1904, not 1896, to accommodate specific costumes by Costume Designer Ann Roth (more than a hundred Broadway productions, including “The Nance” and “Shuffle Along,” and films including “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Working Girl.” Other details including window sash design, even the music Konstantin plays on the piano are realistic in 1904.
In the fourth act of the play, Nina, the young actress who identifies with the murdered seagull of the play’s title, returns to visit Konstantin, knowing her ex-lover Trigorin, who has since abandoned her, is in the next room. When she visits Konstantin, who is still in love with her, she’s half-mad, and says “I am a seagull... no, that’s not right.” It’s tricky to make this line crazy enough without irritating the audience with its self-pity. Mayer, who has seen it done many times, likes Ronan’s take.
“The Seagull,” Mayer said, is a play one lives with. Its meaning changes. As a young man, he was “all about” Konstantin, and his passion for new forms. Now, as an older man, he understands it differently. “Boris and Irina do not set out to destroy these young people. That is not their goal. They are at the end of their creative life. And they’re going into the next phase, and they’re looking for happiness, they’re looking for love. Everyone is.”