Actors Equity member Rachel Jones essays
a knowing, finely-shaded portrait of diva actress
Irina Arkadina in Axial’s “The Seagull.”
Photo by Lynda Shenkman Curtis -






Axial’s ‘The Seagull’ Takes Flight in Pleasantville
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Posted November 20, 2014

I enjoy acting in local plays staged by amateur troupes, commonly known as “community theater.” What I don’t enjoy is performing in auditoriums with hundreds of seats when all but a smattering are bodiless. It means the actor is twice removed from the energy that live theater feeds on: the physical distance between stage and audience is daunting enough without gasping for air while sinking in a sea of emptiness.

The ensemble cast of Axial Theater’s “The Seagull” is uniformly excellent, enacting a controlled energy that is both authentic and dynamic. Photo by Lynda Shenkman Curtis

With rare exception – Armonk Players is one, comfortably resident in its own warm, welcoming, sleekly designed space at North Castle Library – community theater scratches mightily for whatever resources are available, such as a school auditorium or a storefront, or a house of worship.

The trick is to transport the audience out of that space to a make-believe world that feels real. That’s why a smile crossed my face as I entered 8 Sunnyside Avenue in Pleasantville, where the cutting-edge Axial Theater is presenting Anton Chekhov’s seminal drama “The Seagull” through Nov. 23. (To be clear, Axial is not community theater. Local theater, yes. Its signature presentations are compellingly original works — even world premieres — with casts that can include professional actors.)

As I step inside, a pleasant, odorless thin cloud fills the air for a short while to amplify the ambience of a lakefront estate, where the play is set. Cushioned chairs line the perimeter of the rectangular hall, so the audience surrounds the players. Under foot, as you sit, are mulch and moss, while a real rowboat is wedged upright in a corner of the room.

As patrons arrive, a sturdy young man in carpenter’s garb, facing away from us, begins tamping and otherwise repairing wood slats on a raked platform that resembles a dock, dotted with small lanterns. He says nothing. He easily could be part of the stage crew, but we soon realize he is in fact part of the cast. He is doing what in acting class is called “a doing.” It is endemic to the acting credo, which is “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” Mouthing dialogue is not acting. Wholly inhabiting a flesh-and-blood presence is.

Axial’s “The Seagull” is wonderfully immersive theater, pulling in the audience as close as it can without our intruding on the action. The set design, by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader, makes clever, authentic use of the space Axial has at its disposal within St. John’s Episcopal Church, also home to Axial’s professional-caliber Howard Meyer’s Acting Program.

Once transported, we are less observers than eager eavesdroppers on the mise en scene that Chekhov conjures, which the director must scale larger than life. (If theater mirrored merely life-size reality, it would be redundant with reality, and of no moment or use.)

For “The Seagull,” the director is Mr. Meyer himself, a fiercely focused and passionate polymath of the performing arts–as playwright, performer, teacher, dramaturge and entrepreneur. Might as well toss in lay psychologist and affable intellectual.

In other words, “The Seagull” suits him well. Challenging both actor and audience, it is not a simple play. As Russian drama demands, it takes focus to follow the stately architecture of characters and plot lines. Those who stick with it are rewarded. (Those who don’t may just have to return for a second viewing to do themselves justice.)

The story revolves around people of privilege attached to the arts who jockey for position even as they seem to be at war with each other over romance and talent. The 11 conflicted characters have complex relationships fraught with narcissism, envy, self-doubt, philandering and a host of other foibles that inform the human condition.

The ensemble acting of “The Seagull” is uniformly praiseworthy, a testament to the thespians, of course, and also to the discipline and insight typical of just about anything wrought by the redoubtable Mr. Meyer.

In the prominent role of Arkadina, a diva actress whose opinion of herself is a performance in itself, Rachel Jones (an Actors Equity member who is a masterly teacher of aspiring actors like yours truly) gives a finely-shaded, feathery and knowing portrait of a manipulative matriarch with the swagger of a maverick.

In other central roles, Francesco Campari (Treplev, tortured writer and son of Arkadina), Rachel Krause (Nina, aspiring vivacious actress) and Harry Lipstein (Trigorin, celebrated and detached writer, lover of Arkadina) bring to the stage a controlled energy that shimmers on the surface as it plumbs the depths of demons within us all.

Filling out the dramatis personae are delightfully dyspeptic Clemmie Evans as sullen Masha; staunch and cool Mike Fox as country doctor Dorn; versatile Ann Gulian as sturdy Polina; actor’s actor Ward Riley as wise and wizened Sorin, along with yeoman support from Michael Boyle as Shamraev, Dan Walworth as Medvedenko and Anthony Barresi as Yakov. (For performances of Nov. 16 and 21, Dan Held plays Sorin; and for Nov. 21-22, Susan Ward plays Polina.) Jaki Silver is producer; Jill Woodward is stage manager. Lighting design by Avery Lincoln; costumes by Natalie Loveland; sound by Igor Yachmenov.

For those who relish partaking of cultural sustenance that sticks to the ribs, thoughtful theatergoers are well served by this lovingly-mounted Axial production, and also are better off knowing the gist of the story before seeing it (Here’s a handy cheat sheet >

In an incisive program note, Mr. Meyer explains the significance of Chekhov’s profound place in modern theater. The 19th Century playwright revolutionized the form with, as the director puts it, “naturalism or psychological realism.” A concise plot summary of “The Seagull” in the program would have nicely complemented that appreciation.

The moral of Chekhov’s story may just be “Life is good even when it is not. Consider the alternative.” At least one of his creations in “The Sea Gull” does just that.