When I hear that two pieces have been “smashed together,” I make certain assumptions. If I read “conceived by” or “created by the ensemble,” I expect a piece so thoroughly picked apart and put back together, it barely recognizes the original source material. At the very least, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Otherwise, why do this violence of cutting up a play in the first place?
You may be heartily rolling your eyes at my use of the word “violence” here. That’s a pretty elitist stance, you might think. Aren’t we tired of placing the playwright on such a high pedestal? This is 2018.
I am not against ripping a writer’s words apart. I only mean that doing so should be done with a mind to the true heft of the task before you in putting together the pieces.
It should not be simple.
SEAGULLMACHINE premiered at La Mama on April 16, in association with The Assembly. It was was marketed as “two iconic riffs on the Hamlet story” smashed together to ask, “‘What’s the good of making theater anyway?’” Instead, it mostly resembled the Entirety of The Seagull, minus the ending, plus a cabaret show, and then the entirety of HAMLETMACHINE. It would seem that creator Nick Benacerraf felt that this collapse of two incredible works into one lightly blended one was in itself such a good macro-decision that few other artistic choices needed to be made. Yet, because the two plays they chose to combine are each a very powerful force to be reckoned with in its own right, I often felt like The Assembly did not give the attention either play deserved, with the result that each piece and the entire production felt underwhelming.
This issue can perhaps be exemplified in Layla Khosh’s portrayal of Nina in SEAGULLMACHINE’S “Seagull” portion. The top of the play features its own nested play: a piece of experimental Symbolist-esque nonsense, written by Konstantin, performed by Nina. Nina’s movements are vague, her vocal delivery in an airy, dragged-out monotone because, as Nina says, “[Konstantin’s] play is so hard to act in; there are no living characters in it.” A commentary on “Why make theater?”
However, this sort of vague “playing at” dreaminess did not stop at the end of Konstantin’s performance, but continued throughout every line Khosh delivered as Nina. This is not surprising: Khosh is juggling not only one of the more difficult plays to act, but she’s also doing so while slipping in and out of Heiner Müller’s Ophelia, a role she will fully inhabit later on. This sort of HAMLETMACHINE interruption peppered The Seagull portion—the script lists 26 such “hiccups”—but most of them are so subtle or under-indicated that they go unnoticed, look like a mistake, or do little other than to signal the titular transition that we already suspect is coming.
This is not meant to single out one actor; most of the cast seemed similarly vague or on-the-nose in their intentions onstage. Things got loud when there was an argument, lines were rushed when a pause was indicated by the dialogue, depressing comments were delivered slowly and so, so somberly.
There were bright spots in this performance:
-Daniel Maseda as Yakov, cabaret dancer, HAMLETMACHINE ensemble member. Yakov, a hired workman on Sorin’s estate, has but a handful of lines, yet somehow received the majority of audience laughter over the show’s three hours.
-Edward Bauer as Medvedenko, the schoolteacher in love with Masha (a dynamic which never took off due to Anna Abhau Elliott’s awkward performance). His interpretation of Medvedenko as a sad clown whose failure to see the extent of his own misery is one of the only characters that rang true. Bauer played against his character’s misery to great comedic effect, bringing to mind the fact that Chekhov actually subtitled The Seagull as “a comedy in four acts.”
-Ben Beckley as Trigorin, whose costume of a summery suit with sandals reflected his simultaneously supercilious and self-effacing attitude. Beckley made Trigorin’s infatuation with Nina both believable and sad, emblematic of precisely the sort of man who falls for (and ultimately disposes of) a young woman who he sees as nothing but a manic pixie dream girl.
-Asa Wember’s eerie and dynamic sound design, particularly during The Seagull hiccups and the entirety of HAMLETMACHINE.
If I don’t have as much to say about the HAMLETMACHINE portion, it is because the disparate lengths of the two pieces caused it to be utterly dwarfed by the presence of The Seagull. Even with the interruptions, the first play’s four acts can’t help but completely exhaust us by the time we’re told to pay attention to the ten pages of HAMLETMACHINE.
The second play took place in a different space from the first, and mimicked an installation piece in that the cast members walked around us, put on outlandish costumes, asked us to dance, delivered their lines. The logic of this play’s world was murky and the audience’s role—clearly different from before, but in what way?—was not well communicated. To my mind, this was largely because the cast had just acted the entirety of The Seagull and they, too, were exhausted.
Placing The Seagull and HAMLETMACHINE next to one another in their entirety could be a promising idea. If they are two entirely separate productions, each given the attention afforded a full production, and placing them in rep. But in one production with the same actors, an awkward transition, and little editing in between just makes for a long night of non-choices.
And that is maybe the only thing that makes me wonder if there’s any good in making theater. Attention is our most precious and sought-after possession right now, and there are many reasons not to see theater today. So much other noise barraging us every day from all sides, so many other sources of much easier entertainment beckoning. So if you’re making a three hour show, earn those three hours. If the piece is going to ask the question, “What’s the good of making theater anyway?”, don’t allow the craft of the piece itself to cast doubt upon such an endeavor.