Serenbe Playhouse: The Seagull

I generally don’t attend arts events OTP just because there’s more than enough for me ITP and my daily commute up and down GA 400 sours me on the idea of getting back on the highway when I don’t have to. A couple of friends of mine wanted an excuse to go down and check out Serenbe, though, so we made plans for them to pick me up and go see a play by Serenbe Playhouse. They left it to me to pick the play and I chose The Seagull both because I like what I’ve seen of Chekhov’s work and the rest of the season offerings were mostly musical theater adaptations of movies (or at least the same source material as famous movies), which didn’t appeal to me in the least. So my friends picked me up, we got some dinner in the city since we are all vegans and Serenbe is not particularly friendly to our kind, and we went down to see what may be the worst production of Chekhov’s work ever to be staged.

I can only think of two good things about the show. The first is that the character of Peter/Pyotr was played by Allan Edwards with a southern accent, which is a pretty rare thing to hear from a performer unless the character is an ignorant bumpkin, narrow-minded, bigoted, or some combination of the three. The second is Brooke Owens’ (Masha) gorgeous hair. Pretty much everything else about it was terrible.

The play was adapted and directed by Elizabeth Dinkova. Aside from being set in contemporary times (in an awkward sort of way by changing a few lines here and there, not by actually changing people’s jobs or anything), it was pared down, with half of the characters cut out of it and about a fifth to a quarter of the material left out. This included cutting out the love triangle with Masha’s parents and the doctor, none of whom were in this staging. I couldn’t really understand who the heck Masha was supposed to be without her father being the steward of Peter’s farm. Who was she and why was she so disaffected and why was she there at all?

The staging was a blend of rustic summer-camp-theater-on-a-lake and 80’s German art theater. The production was on Peek Lake on a terraced stage and dock with a shack on one side. Lots of LED strips were everywhere that would suddenly shift the scene from something pretty straightforward to an 80’s new wave music video. Think “Camp Klaus Nomi” without the broad shoulders and Elizabethan collars and you might get close, though that would probably be more interesting. Redo Friday the 13th with Jason replaced by Gary Numan and you’d probably have something a little closer, though more visually coherent. (Side note: I’d totally go to see a serious movie playing off of either of those ideas without a lick of irony.)

For some reason, Dinkova also added music: the characters each had a sung monologue performed in some kind of outrageous mask, often with the others in black giving them backup movement/dancing/voice/something. The music was was pretty weak, sounding kind of thrown together almost like the actors were trying to go off book by singing their lines to tunes in the style of Kraftwerk or Tubeway Army as a mnemonic but, ironically, couldn’t really remember the tunes. There was also this sort of dance scene out of nowhere with characters droning their lines and Masha shouting “Drink!” between each recitation. It was very Sprockets. Again, that all sounds way cooler than it was. Or, if not cooler, it sounds more like something that I’d enjoy than what was presented.

Speaking of sounds, for some reason they miked the actors. It wasn’t a particularly large area and you could hear the house manager talking from the stage all the way to the bar, so it really didn’t seem necessary. I’d think that any trained actor should be able to project through five or six rows outdoors without much issue. Also for some reason that I just can’t fathom, they put one of the speakers to the side of the audience rather than just amplifying from the stage, which made it really hard to figure out where to look when the actors first started talking.

For the most part, the performances ranged from uneven to stiff, though Edwards as Peter and Park Krausen as Irina, were both fairly decent in their roles. The lines often felt like they were being read out at a table reading. I think that this has a lot more to do with the choppy, spazzy adaptation of the script than the actors’ respective abilities. And I somehow doubt that Dinkova’s direction was much help to them in finding an authentic voice for their characters. Irina and Peter were the only really coherent characters in this cut, given that they don’t really develop much in the play and don’t get particularly manic or obsessed like the other characters (with the brief exception of Irina trying to keep Boris from running off with Nina which is only a small moment in this play).

I couldn’t really tell if Dinkova had a meaningful vision for the play. I appreciate risk in theater, but the whole aesthetic gimmick felt self indulgent: seemingly serving to put the director’s mark on the play moreso than to help the audience encounter Chekhov’s story in a meaningful way. My companions, who were less familiar with his work than I was but who are in no way ill-read boors, couldn’t really pull the major themes of the play from the performance until I talked to them about it during the intermission. One of them went so far as to say that this was the worst play she had ever seen. Judging from the audience’s applause, I suspect that her sentiment was shared by more than a few others who were there. Personally, I got more out of Twinhead Theatre’s 2009 production of The Cherry Orchard and Zombies, which did a modestly decent job with the zombies and a less decent job interpreting Checkhov, but was still more clear and coherent than this production of The Seagull.

This was us trying out both Serenbe and the playhouse for the first time and none of us really see the point of giving it another shot. It’s expensive for the quality, out of the way, and uncomfortable. Waiting around in a field in the middle of nowhere for them to let us even buy a drink before the show was tedious. Even our stroll over to the Inn and Farmhouse (sans sidewalks) didn’t really impress upon us a worthy reason to drive that far south of the perimeter. If the quality of the other productions are even half as bad as this was then it’s just not worth our time.

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