Title: Seagull. Playwright: Anton Chekhov
At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.; Steppenwolf.org Tickets: $20-$88. Runs through: June 12
The final test of success for any undertaking lies in how well it accomplishes its intended purpose. The undertaking, in this case, is the addition to the Steppenwolf Theatre compound of the new Ensemble Theater in Honor of Helen Zell (less formally, the "Ensemble Theater"), and the occasion of its unveiling is Chekhov's classic portrait of the idle classes in fin-de-siecle Russia, freshly translated and directed by Steppenwolf company member Yasen Peyankov, in a production reuniting several of the legendary troupe's distinguished alumni.
Passing the first checkpoint easily is the airy multiple-use facility on the site of the parking lot just south of the mainstage, its lobby amenities (elevators, restrooms etc.) displaying signage clearly visible to pedestrians of all sizes and capabilities. Inside the circular auditorium, the steep rake of the seats may invoke the famous Thomas Eakins painting of a surgical laboratory, but wearers of skyscraper-heeled shoes opting for seagull-eye views of the room will be relieved to discover the aisles equipped with an abundance of handrails.
(For the record, all seats are four rows or less from the stage, whose glossy no-street-shoes-allowed parquet floor is enhanced by a central hydraulic-lift platform and computer-operated dropped origami-gazebo ceiling, both utilized in the beachfront solo-show written by Symbolist-wannabe Konstantin for celebrity-wannabe Ninastagecraft making for a dazzling, if environmentally confusing, introduction to our story.)
Locating ourselves doesn't get any simpler following this impressive exhibit of high-tech wizardry, either. That's because Chekhov is not about spectacle, but misaligned personalities and their destructive influence on one another. Although it's not uncommon for directors working with long-term collaborators to trust the latter's instincts in articulating these, the results make for widely varying approaches to Peyankov's colloquial vocabulary and laissez-faire instructional techniquenotably, a number of scattered moments seemingly lifted directly off the printed page.
To be sure, one could always argue that it's the job of the actors to impose texture and motive on the dramatic actiona task often facilitated by scenarios kept as bare as possible and dialogue likewise left unembellished. Certainly, no one can fault the assembled cast for not always arriving at decisive line readings for every word of their brand-new script after a mere three performances into the run. During this necessary breaking-in process, however, playgoers can delight in the facial expressions of Lusia Strus' strident Irina and Jeff Perry's curmudgeonly Sorin (played by Scott Jaeck after May 24), Eric Simonson's deft phrasing as the avuncular Dorn, Keith Kupferer's comic timing as the garrulous Shamraev and Carolyn Neff's in-depth text-analysis as a refreshingly resilient Nina. World-class playhouses aren't built in a day, you know.