Before the lights brighten the first scene of the Maryland Stage Company production of Chekhov's "The Sea Gull" at Center Stage, the mood is established with a recording of gulls. The birds are so loud, you can't help wondering if you've accidentally wandered into a theater screening Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds."
Like the evening as a whole, these birds are so theatrically demanding, you pay attention to them. The production, directed by Xerxes Mehta, immediately sets a boisterously comic tone that's at odds with the more melancholy expectations most of us bring to the Russian playwright's work.
Mehta can readily find support for his stance in statements made by Chekhov in his letters. For that matter, several of the characters in "The Sea Gull" are theater people whose woe-is-me, self-dramatizing speeches are so overblown they're funny.
Unfortunately, this chuckling take on Chekhov leads to some overly manic performances in the first half. The play's psychological nuances don't stand a chance under the circumstances.
And yet a funny thing happens after intermission. The play's more serious themes assert themselves, and the performers become correspondingly more subtle. By the end of the evening, you come away filled with the mixture of emotions that Chekhov can deliver like no other playwright. If only that emotional mixture had been felt throughout the night.
Despite its emotional imbalance, the Maryland Stage Company interpretation has much to recommend it. Essentially a tale of star-crossed lovers, this "Sea Gull" benefits from a 1994 translation by Pam Gems. Her language occasionally becomes too flippantly contemporary, but the translation has an admirable clarity and intensity.
Exemplifying that intensity with diva-like force is Wendy Salkind, who embodies Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina, a middle-aged actress whose fame is more than matched by her ego. Her every gesture is a grand performance. It's amusing to watch her romancing novelist Trigorin (John Lescault), who is as quietly self-absorbed as she is extroverted.
The emotional high point of the show is when Arkadina, who has mocked her son Kostya (a first-rate Kyle Prue) for aspiring to write for the theater, finally reveals some tenderness toward him while changing his bandage.
The acting is equally solid in most other roles. The aspiring actress who is Kostya's girlfriend is ardently played by Peggy Yates. As Arkadina's near-invalid brother, Sorin, Sam McCready does a nice job bringing out his buffoonish side.
'The Sea Gull'
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: Today through Sunday; July 14-19, 21-26; shows at 8 p.m., except Sundays, at 4 p.m.
Tickets: $5-$22; free for high school students; discounts for students, artists of various kinds and senior citizens
Pub Date: 7/10/98