"If you just follow aesthetics with no purpose, you will lose yourself."


Created by The Assembly
Conceived by Nick Benacerraf
Co-directed by Jess Chayes & Nick Benacerraf
Text by Anton Chekhov, Heiner Müller, and The Assembly

April 15, 2018

You walk through a mostly empty theater towards a garage door. It’s closed, and a scarved woman ushers you through a side door into a brightly lit space - the set, presumably, where actors are going about preparing for a show. A man writing at a desk, another doing pushups, and two actors giving each other shoulder rubs and pep talks. If you know anything about Chekhov’s The Seagull, this immersive beginning drops hints of what’s to come. Konstantin Gavrilovich’s play-within-a-play is about to start, and we are witness to his immense failure and embarrassment.

But SEAGULLMACHINE is not about The Seagull, though they stage and perform nearly the entirety before breaking the 4th wall in a most resounding way (cabaret? dance party? gender-bending costume switch, with video feed and references to Hamlet?)

No, folks. This isn’t your ordinary Seagull.

And thankfully so. I’ve never been awed by Chekhov’s work, finding the characters both dull and frustrating. They whine and mope and look for approval in all the wrong places, falling into love triangles that make me want to walk onstage and say, “LOOK, there are other fish in the sea! S/he’s kind of a drama queen! And, quite frankly, so are you! GET OVER YOURSELF.”

That being said, the production of SEAGULLMACHINE kept me occupied with pristine details that only a masterful set designer would consider. Bic pens on the writing desk, balconies festooned with additional costumes and set pieces for Gavrilovich, leather-bound books, just the right chair.

(As a side note, I met Nick, the brains and talent behind the set and entire production, on my 3rd night in NYC. I’m pretty sure I feel asleep at The Assembly’s production of That Poor Dream, one of his company's pieces at The Tank, more due to jetlag than to the work itself. Don’t tell Nick! Later he introduced me to the genius that is Taylor Mac, for which I am forever indebted.)

Anyway, despite my frustration with Chekhov’s text, the concept that succeeds in this production is the garage door, which serves as a literal and metaphorical barrier between the audience and the concept of “theater” that inhabits the space behind it. Three video monitors intermittently show grainy feeds of Nina preparing her debut behind the closed portal, and she delivers her opening monologue standing literally on the border between audience and “backstage.” Since the audience is completely contained within the set, Nina herself acts as a corporeal fourth wall; a playful device that subverts a more traditional approach to experimental theater.

The barrier breaks down completely in the second act when the audience is ushered through into the surreal space beyond. Chekhov’s Seagull is abruptly truncated by a cabaret number and transitioned into the wildly strange world of Hamletmachine by Heiner Müller. This jarring change of pace and tone could be ironed out, and I would ask the director to clearly link the two plays with more than a passing reference to Chekhov and Muller’s mutual admiration for Hamlet. But I digress.

Throughout the raucous second half of the play I constantly reminded myself, “It doesn’t have to make sense.” Hamletmachine isn’t meant to be easily interpreted, some scholars even debate its qualifications as a "drama" and Müller himself said "the first preoccupation I have when I write drama is to destroy things." My advice is to just let it happen. The actors change into bizarre and diverse costumes and narrative breaks down. I let the bricks of the fourth wall crumble around me.

Later, I read Hamletmachine, and though the 9 pages of text are peculiar and completely outlandish I enjoyed it. The Assembly did an admirable job attempting to penetrate this bizarre world that’s not-quite-drama and certainly not the Hamlet you know.

Overall, I’m afraid I didn’t quite "get" SEAGULLMACHINE. Perhaps my scrappy theater education is not adequate for penetrating large-scale experimental work, or perhaps the creators put the carrot a little far from the stick. If you’re looking for an intellectual and heady exploration of meta-theatrical concepts, get a ticket, but I suggest reading The Seagull, Hamlet, and Hamletmachine first. Then, leave your expectations at the garage door, and walk right in.

Image courtesy The Assembly website © Marina McClure Photography


Created by The Assembly
Conceived by Nick Benacerraf
Directed by Jess Chayes & Nick Benacerraf
Text by Anton Chekhov, Heiner Muller & The Assembly
Hamletmachine translated by Carl Weber

Creative Team:
Nick Benacerraf & Emmie Finckel (Scenic Design)
Kate Fry (Costume Design)
Asa Wember (Sound Design)
Miriam Nilofa Crowe (Lighting Design)
Ray Sun (Video Design)
Stephen Aubrey (Dramaturgy)
Jess Cummings (Props & Assistant Scenic Design
Katie Rose McLaughlin (Cabaret Choreography)
Additional Music by Edward Bauer, Nehassaiu deGannes, Jax Jackson & Aston Hollins McClanahan

Rolls Andre (Shamraev)
Edward Bauer (Medvedenko)
Ben Beckley (Trigorin)
Marvin Bell (Sorin)
Emily Caffery (Maid)
Nehassaiu deGannes (Arkadina)
Anna Abhau Elliott (Masha)
Christopher Hurt (Dorn)
Jax Jackson (Konstantin)
Layla Khosh (Nina)
Daniel Maseda (Yakov)
Elena McGhee (Polina)
Gaby Resende (Cook)

Lucy Jackson (Producer)
Emily Caffery (Associate Producer)
Devin Fletcher (Production Stage Manager
Azure D. Osborne-Lee (Assistant Stage Manager
Miranda Haymon (Assistant Director)
Karen Boyer (Associate Costume Design)
Emily Schumann (Assistant Costume Design)
Emma Johnson (Production Manger)
Carl Whipple (Technical Director)
Ari Rudess (Casting Consultant)

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