Playwright and composer Beth Hyland’s “The Seagulls” follows Chekhov, set on a modern college campus in Ohio where older characters have been exiled offstage, and the story follows angry young artists trying to find their way in the world. Hyland’s indie rock adaptation of the 1896 Russian play achieves the emotional depth and artistic sensitivity of “For Rent” or “Once Upon a Time,” and while its writing isn’t on the same level as those famous musicals, it’s peppered with sharply insightful lines and lyrics. In director Rebecca Willingham’s production at Oak Park Festival Theatre, the young cast, many of whom are making their Chicago theater debut, deliver some accomplished performances despite the script’s shaky character development.
The foursome at the center of Hyland’s version are her sophomore college bandmates; They make their debut by winning the battle between the groups and get the opportunity to start a professional show. Ryan Kirby stars as Con, a frontman and guitarist hungry to find success beyond the shadow of his mother, a pop star past the prime of her career. Aurora Penepacker is Con’s girlfriend and backup vocalist Nina, who aspires to be more than his muse and write the music herself. Her friends Masha (Veronique Le) and Simon (Julio Cesar Gutierrez) complete the Seagulls’ eponymous group (there’s no “the,” they insist).
The love triangles of Chekhov’s play are of great importance in the musical adaptation. Masha and Simon are a couple, but Masha has long-held feelings for Con and Nina leaves him when Ben Trigorin, a famous singer his father’s age who is dating Con’s mother, shows suspicious interest in her. career.
Penepacker has a clear, strong voice and is attractive as Nina, but her character arc is a bit confusing. In a way, this is stronger than Nina Chekhov’s naivety; When Con fails to take her seriously as a songwriter, she embarrasses him on stage with the surprise debut of a defiant ballad protesting her objectification. But soon she’s cast as a backup singer on Con’s experimental new song; It’s a hilariously chilling scene, featuring a dramatic reading of David Foster Wallace, interpretive movement, and a cacophony of instrumentals. Why would she prepare herself for such humiliation when she felt like Con was using her?
A development that seems more plausible is that Nina is deceived by the predatory Trigorin. As Nina rockets towards fame, she must deal with modern issues like toxic celebrity culture, cyberbullying, and being infantilized and controlled by her record company. But some things have not changed since 1896; Powerful men still take advantage of ambitious young women and destroy them like the seagull that gave the play its name.
As the other protagonist, Con is the epitome of a pessimistic artist with the insecurity and jealousy of someone who doesn’t want to be seen as a neo-baby but feels that at 20 he’s already behind the game. Kirby brings vulnerability and sensitivity. role, especially during his breakdown in the second act. While the other two characters offer less material for players to work with, Le’s Masha is realistic, sincere, and relatable; She struggles with her feelings for Con and the future of her relationship with Simon.
Both Trigorin and Arkadina (Con’s or Constantine’s mother) are major characters in the original play, but appear only offstage in Hyland’s adaptation. By viewing them through Con and Nina’s eyes, they become one-dimensional; Since this is a show about kids, it’s no big loss, but it’s a little odd that we never meet their enemies.
Hyland’s indie rock score works best when the songs function as expressions of the characters’ emotions rather than presenting major plot points. In my opinion, the scene where Nina describes her traumatic experiences with Trigorin through song works better as dialogue. However, there are some very nice moments when the young people sing their hearts out; especially when Con and Nina duet.
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Chekhov’s themes about the price of fame and the tension between artistic fulfillment and commercial success translate well to our time, where artists like Britney Spears and Taylor Swift are leading to a re-examination of how the music industry, and society more broadly, treats women. spotlight The open-ended ending of “Seagulls” leaves room for the optimists in the audience to imagine a future in which the once-vibrant singer will find her voice again and record a Nina’s Version of her music. I would listen.
Emily McClanathan is a freelance critic.
Review: “Seagulls” (2.5 stars)
When: Until November 19
Where: Oak Park Festival Theater at Pleasant Home, 217 Home Ave., Oak Park
Working time: 1 hour 40 minutes
Tickets: $45 oakparkfestival.com