Before Masha even reaches the stage at the outset of The Seagull she explains her fondness for wearing black.
"I'm mourning my life," she says. "I'm unhappy."
And on that uplifting note, ChekhovFest 2014 is off and glumming.
The Seagull is Anton Chekhov's earliest major play, and it landed at the RMTC Warehouse Thursday with all the melancholy and heartache of the original still intact. Masha is the first, and by far not the last, inhabitant of a Russian country estate whose spirit is being crushed by thwarted passion and unfulfilled desire.
The debate over whether The Seagull is a comedy, like the playwright claimed, or a tragedy as Konstantin Stanislavsky, Chekhov's pioneering director, loudly proclaimed rages on. Director Krista Jackson offers a well-balanced production brimming with deep, painful hilarity. The depth of the joy and sorrow of these characters becomes so absurd as to become laughable.
Masha is miserable because she carries a torch for budding playwright Constantine, who has a thing for neighbour Nina, an aspiring actress attracted to the famous novelist Trigorin, who is carrying on with Constantine's stage-diva mother Irina, but also has the hots for Nina. Everyone's in love with someone who doesn't return their love.
Chekhov's mashup up of funny and sad is beautifully captured in a scene where the estate manager's married wife Polina, played with a hair-trigger intensity by Terri Cherniack, is having an affair with dapper Doctor Dorn. She loves his bedside manner and wants to move in with him, but he's not that much into her. She seems resigned to her loveless fate, but as Dorn is about to bring a bouquet into the house to Irina, she intercepts him with a cheerful, "What lovely flowers," then grabs them and tears them to pieces in a fit of fury.
Chekhov's intimacy with the ways of the heart has always made his works appear younger than his age and thoroughly modern. The brooding, snuff-head Masha could walk down Portage Avenue today. Ditto for the smitten striver Constantine or the innocent Nina, who inspires the bird metaphor of the title.
The well-paced four-act, two-hour production (not including intermission), is a major undertaking on the small Warehouse stage, but designer Sue LaPage succeeds in shoehorning in the opening lakeside scene, a tight squeeze that forced actors to make their entrances down the aisles of the theatre.
The Seagull introduced many of Chekhov's playwriting trademarks, including mightily little plot. Anything important will take place offstage, leaving him more time to poke fun at human folly. He also never loads the deck in favour of one or two of his characters but demands that all be seen as equals worthy of our sympathy and amusement.
That levels the playing field for many of the 13-member cast, who get to blurt out their torments found in David French's translation that enlivens the dialogue for a contemporary audience. Dorn has a few lines that could have come out of the mouth of Basil Fawlty, and estate owner Sorin starts whistling uncomfortably when his sister Irina tells him bold-faced lies about her finances.
Jackson draws strong performances from her two imported leads and many hometown actors. Bethany Jillard (Gone With the Wind) finely draws Nina's journey from fame-hungry optimism to bruised realism. A highlight is her hero-worshipping lakeside scene with the world-weary Trigorin, but their misreadings of each other spark a doomed romance. In his low-key RMTC debut, Tom Rooney's Trigorin reveals how a reticent man is transformed by an adoring public.
Ross McMillan stands out as self-satisfied Dorn, the doctor who dispenses compassion and cruelty. Sharon Bajer conveys all the vanity, parsimony and melodrama of an aging performer who senses her best years are behind her. Bajer succeeds in making us wonder at times if Irina is playing a role or just being herself. Harry Nelken gives us a sympathetic Sorin, who wanted to live in town and get married, but ends up a bachelor in the country. Tracy Penner is a delight in how she vividly sells the tragedy of the comically self-absorbed.
Tom Keenan is a believable Constantine, headstrong and immature, but passionate about Nina and the need for a new theatre form. The pathetic way he shows Nina the seagull he has shot is reminiscent of a dog bringing home a squirrel it killed. Ultimately, in The Seagull, tragedy takes hold in the darker final act where moments of tenderness give way to the results of brutal unkindness that leaves the audience, like Masha, mourning.