Productions of playwright Anton Chekhov often miss the passion of his intensely Russian characters. We are presented with depressed and ineffective people caught up in situations that they cannot or will not change. The humor in his plays is often obscured by the sheer intensity of the characters.

That is definitely not the case with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's latest Chekhov offering, "Seagull," which opened Sunday in the New Theatre. Directed by OSF's former Artistic Director Libby Appel, who adapted the play from a literal translation by Allison Horsley, this production's approach to Chekhov and his characters is loving and ironic.

On the surface, "Seagull" is a play about unrequited love and frustrated ambition. In a weekend at a country estate by a lake, we get to know the actress Irina Arkadina and her family, lovers, friends and employees — a cross section of life's winners and losers.

Appel uses Christopher Acebo's minimal and haunting set of a villa by a lake, subtly lit by Alexander V. Nichols, to suggest the isolation of these people.

Arkadina (Kathryn Meisle) is a successful, if aging, actress. Selfish, miserly and narcissistic, she is only content when she is adored. Those around her are tolerated when they focus their attention on her.

She has little time or respect for her adult son, Kostya (Tasso Feldman), a frustrated writer. She is affectionate but dismissive of her retired bureaucrat of an elder brother, Sorin (Michael J. Hume) and basks in the courtliness of the village's womanizing retired physician, Dorn (Armando Durán).

Her latest romantic conquest is a popular writer, Trigorin (Al Espinosa). He is fascinated by her sexuality, seduced by her fame and satisfied to be her consort. Trigorin would love to be acclaimed as a superb writer, but he knows better. As he wryly puts it, his tombstone will probably read, "Talented but no Turgenev." Trigorin is willing to compromise his art and survive, as contrasted with the pitiful Kostya, who is unable to do so.

Arkadina's alter ego is Nina (Nell Geisslinger), a beautiful young village girl who yearns to be an actress. She is in love with and loved by Kostya but frightened and confused by his intensity. Nina is all idealism with little of Arkadina's skill of making the best of situations and opportunities. When Nina falls heedlessly in love with Trigorin, it is with her image of him, not who he really is.

Chekhov has meticulously balanced his other characters. Sorin bemoans the fact that he always wanted to be a writer and be married. He regrets moving away from the city to the boring country. He complains that the farm's manager is wasting resources, draining Sorin's pension on frivolous agricultural products. Dorn, who also remained single but seems to have seduced every woman patient he ever treated, has traveled widely and is enjoying a comfortable if unexciting retirement.

Masha (Kate Hurster) is desperately in love with Kostya and oblivious to the love of the clueless schoolteacher Semyon (Jonathan Dyrud). Her mother, Polina (Lisa Wolpe), who is married to the egocentric farm manager Shamrayev (John Pribyl), has had a long affair with the doctor. She loves him passionately. To Dorn, she is a pleasant if occasionally tiresome convenience.

Appel's casting makes these people come vibrantly alive, with all their virtues and faults. By intermission, the audience cares about their hopeless loves and frustrating lives. By the second act, when we meet them two years later, what has happened to each of them makes sense, as sad as it is.

Some Chekhov interpretations maintain that the "losers" in this tale are trapped and betrayed by the selfishness and narcissism of the "winners."

Appel, however, seems to be convinced that, as Chekhov portrays them, the tragic characters have chosen to have tragic lives. The "winners" — Trigorin, Arkadina, Dorn and even the farm manager — take what is given to them, as flawed as it is, and make the best of it. They are insulated by being selfish and narcissistic, but they make a choice. Kostya, Nina, Masha, Sorin and Polina could make positive choices but choose not to.

As Appel has presented it, Chekhov is gently poking fun at these "tragic lives." Any play that starts out with the lines "Why do you always wear black, Masha?" "I am in mourning for my life" cannot be seen as straightforward tragedy.

Appel has given us a complex, compassionate and superbly articulated look into this world. You may like Chekhov's structural technique or not, relate to his characters or not, but his skill as a writer, as an observer of life, cannot be denied.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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