A cursed comedy?

Chekhov’s classic is turned into melodrama and laughs

Director Kim Renders’ bold choice of casting all women works with the production’s destabilized generic conventions.
Director Kim Renders’ bold choice of casting all women works with the production’s destabilized generic conventions.

“Oh, what could be duller than this dear tedium of the country?” Irina asks in the second act of Anton Chekhov’s classic play The Seagull. Well, anyone who has seen the drama department’s latest production of this very same play might have an answer for her.

Directed by Queen’s drama professor Kim Renders and assistant-directed by student Jess Halis, The Seagull begins in the sultry summer with a performance and ends in the harsh light of winter with a suicide. It’s a haunting story of unfulfillment that details what happens to people when they spread their wings but are unable to fly.

Or at least it should be a haunting story of unfulfillment.

Under Renders’ direction, the play is transformed into a grotesque version of a comedic melodrama. A version, I might add, that is not very funny and lends itself to an acting style so unnatural I’m sure Constantin Stanislavsky—who directed The Seagull for the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898—is currently rolling in his grave.

Chekhov’s play might initially start off as funny, but as soon as Trigorin gives his speech about being trapped by his talents as a writer and Constantine tries to shoot himself for the first time, the text veers off the trajectory of comedy and into the realm of tragedy. Thus, Renders attempt to turn the play into a comedy ultimately comes off as bizarre.

She does, however, make good use of her performance space (Convocation Hall) and has evidently worked hard with her actors to create a richly detailed show. I particularly liked the parts in the play where Constantine—the playwright of the play-within-the-play—was mouthing the speech of his actress as she was delivering her lines and when the servants were playing cat’s cradle with leftover yarn from sweaters they were knitting earlier on in the show.

In order to achieve the stylized acting long associated with melodrama and, in turn, to disassociate the play with tragedy, Renders chose to cast women to play both the male and female characters of The Seagull. It’s the right choice for her concept, but it desexualizes the very romantic relationships that give the play a forward sense of movement.

There is a lot of screeching and flailing of arms in this production, but the actors all bravely honoured Renders’ melodramatic direction and performed their roles to the best of their ability. Annie Briggs’ outrageous Irina and Emily Richardson’s curmudgeon Peter were delightful to watch and gave the play a much needed breath of fresh air each time they were on.

Stephen Sullivan’s skeletal set, which is painted in various shades of gray, nicely compliments Judith Fisher’s colourful and kitsch costumes. Reminiscent of rag dolls, Cabbage Patch Kids and Theatre Beyond Words’ famous Potato People clown troupe, Fisher’s yarn and tulle costume designs are a lot of fun. They are easily my favourite part of the entire production. Led by head of wardrobe Anne Redish, the amount of craftsmanship that went into making the wigs and hand-knitted garments worn by some of the characters is staggering.

Renders took a risk by staging The Seagull play as a comedy. Unfortunately, theatrical risks, just like business or romantic risks, don’t always pay off.  Restaurants close, that cute guy from the bar never calls you like he said he would and your really good idea doesn’t look like such a good idea once you dress it up in costumes and put in under stage lights.

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