A Mapquest route from the East County to Santa Paula leads through some of California’s most beautiful and hidden agricultural land. Idle farm implements and once-modern trucks rest upon what may have once been easily accessed roads, weed-choked now and abandoned.
At the end of that scenic route is the Santa Paula Theater Center and its current production: a staging of Anton Chekov’s 1896 masterpiece, The Seagull. Audiences experience a rare gem; The Seagull is theatrical history, newly adapted by director Michael Perlmutter. Once-heavy, archaic language has been streamlined by Perlmutter, and the staging in the nearly century-old building is apropos.
The Seagull begins as a play within a play, staged in an outdoor amphitheatre. The playwright Konstantin (played with charm and arc by Patrick Beckstead) enters with Masha (Jecca Perlmutter), who slogs along in heavy black garb and speaks in monotone. Never mind that Masha acts disinterested or what she’s sniffing up her nose; her silent obsession is Konstantin.
The country estate where the performance is to take place is owned by Sorin (veteran local actor Doug Friedlander). With bellowing voice and mock-stiffness, Sorin may have retired to the rural countryside but that doesn’t mean he likes it. “Life is just wrong here,” he says of the pace. “I just don’t get it!” Konstantin, however, praises the natural splendor. “A view of the lake and all the props you can’t buy!” The perfect stage for his ode to his love, Nina (the perky Jessamyn Arnstein).
Konstantin times his play with the rising of the moon. Then Nina, as an angel, appears. What comes forth is less a play and more a series of symbolic ramblings, interrupted by the creatures of the night, registering opinions about Konstantin’s work almost as much as his overbearing mother, Arkadina (Andrea Tate).
A once-famous actress herself, Arkadina is accused of hating both the play and her son as reminders of her lost youth. Unable to take the heckling from both Mother Nature and his birth mother, Konstantin stops the performance. Arkadina seats herself at the foot of the stage and regales the audience, calling the play a childish tantrum. “Let him write what he feels, but spare me his nonsense.”
And it is a writer who delivers the apex of The Seagull. Tyler McAuliffe’s soliloquy as author Trigorin, a role widely believe to be autobiographical of Chekov, comes when Nina expresses her desire for fame. Trigorin shows her its pitfalls. For him, fame is the product of his singular obsession, writing down details and observing the beauty of daily life. He demonstrates this, somewhat absently, by at first complimenting Nina as having “rivaled nature itself” onstage, then soon turning to a dead bird, over which he begins frantically making notes for a new short story inspired by its beauty.
Chekov was sure to include plenty of love, lust and yearning into The Seagull, most of which circulates in love triangles throughout. When Masha finally confides in local doctor Dorn (Hugh McManigal), he’s distracted himself by Paulina (the lusty and married Christina Burke). Masha loves Konstatin, Konstantin loves Nina, and of course, Trigorin is in love with his writing.
Trigorin may be obsessed with telling a good story, but so was Michael Permutter, who has delivered a fresh adaptation of Chekov’s classic play in a lovely country setting, in language as accessible and enjoyable to contemporary audiences as it has ever been before.
The Seagull, through May 25 at the Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. Seventh St., Santa Paula. 525-4645 or www.santapaulatheatercenter.org.