Ten years ago, the Romanian director Lucian Pintilie mounted a production in Paris of Chekhov's
The Seagull that pivoted on a brilliant, if radical, conception. Beginning with the end of the play, Pintilie transformed Chekhov's pastoral tragicomedy about the tempestuous relationships of a group of artists into a memory play. The first three acts were played as a sunlit flashback in the mind of young Treplev on the stormy night that he commits suicide. Key to the production was the small, makeshift stage on which Treplev's play is performed in act one -- Pintilie had the little theatre remain onstage throughout the entire play, literally haunting the characters as a reminder of the single performance of Treplev's odd poetic drama.
Director and designer Liviu Ciulei, a fellow Romanian and now the artistic director of The Guthrie Theater, was so impressed with the Paris production that he recently invited Pintilie to reproduce it in Minneapolis. It marked Pintilie's American debut; he was preceded by a reputation based on his productions at the Bulandra Theatre in Bucharest (which also nurtured Ciulei and Andrei Serban) and the Paris Opera, where he once staged a production of
Turandot with a cast of dwarves.
For this Seagull, Pintilie went back to his original design team: set designer Radu Boruzescu and his wife Miruna, a costumer, also Romanian but now living in Paris. The result of their collaboration in Minneapolis was a strikingly beautiful and powerful production of Chekhov's tricky masterpiece that took Pintilie's directorial concept one step further. Just as the characters in the play keep bringing up Treplev's play, and just as Chekhov clearly had
Hamlet on the brain when he was writing The
Seagull, Pintilie himself did not simply recreate his Paris production. Instead, he brought the memory of that production and the strangeness of trying to reproduce it ten years later into the theatre with him.
The little stage that remained visible throughout was still a major element of the production design. But now it was situated between two walls of mirrors, the downstage one movable and doubling as a scrim when backlit. A character could stand looking in the mirror and see a reflection of the present alongside a representation -- on the stage of the little theatre -- of the past.
According to production manager Julia Gillett, who worked closely with the director
and designers as a liaison to the Guthrie's production crew,
"The image of the theatre behind the scrim was supposed to be like those medical drawings where you see the person's head but you also see the brains and nerves inside. Here, there was a juxtaposition of memory and reality on the mirror at the same time."
The dualism of Pintilie's production concept -- the idea of wavering between memory and reality -- was reflected in the Boruzescus' design. The materials used for the set were basically wood and steel, the costumes were monochromatic (white and black or gray), and both combined real materials with artificial or manufactured articles.
For instance, the movable mirror panels were 28-foot-high sheets of solar film (a 3M product frequently used in industrial building) attached to aluminum frames and treated with shellac to look cloudy in spots and clear in others. The back wall consisted of plexiglass pieces with steel framing. The floor was a sheet of 1/8" steel over a Plyron surface. This steel floor was a practical necessity, because of the weight of the little theatre, which had to track downstage on a knife attached to a metal plate underneath, allowing it to swivel. But Gillett notes that the steel was also a specific design choice because "it could be an important part of the stage visually, or it could just disappear." Meanwhile, there was a grove of birch trees onstage that the director personally went out and chose one by one and placed on the set.
The choice of materials for costumes was similarly somewhat stylized. The only spots of color, for example, indicated a character undergoing changes, as when Trigorin appeared in a red-and-black striped, one-piece bathing suit for act two, or Madame Arkadina in a beautiful rose velvet gown for act three. Treplev never changed clothes and Paulina wore an hilariously incongruous corn-yellow dress. Although the costumes included real pieces, either taken from the Guthrie stock or purchased by the designer in Paris, even these were always altered -- taken apart and put together with different kinds of fabric, destroying the line between store-bought and shop-made.
Of course, recycling is business as usual for most repertory theatres. The plexiglass mirrored wall for
The Seagull had been used for Ciulei's production of Peer
Gynt, for instance, and the triple-track truss frames for sliding mirror panels were still in place from Andrei Serban's Mylar-and-roller-skates production of
The Marriage of Figaro.
The most thrilling moment in the production, Nina's exit after visiting Treplev in Act Four, brought together the creative input of all the Romanian collaborators. As Nina began to recall the play by Treplev she had innocently performed that summer day four years earlier, Masha and Madame Arkadina started painting her face white and dressed her in a feathery white robe and headdress so that she was, indeed, the seagull. At that point, the little theatre left its "fantasy" space between the two walls of mirrors, rolled downstage, picked up Nina, and then receded -- as if from Treplev's memory – in a blinding 5K back-lit glare into Never-Never,Land, while Nina shrieked the opening lines of Treplev's play: "Man and beast, lions, eagles, and
partridges . . . these and all living things have completed their sad cycle, are no more."
The production budget included $15,000 for set materials (not counting labor) and $11,000 for costumes (unusually high for the Guthrie). Besides the theatre’s regular sound and lighting instruments, the equipment used included fluorescent tubes, three oil-foggers (which actually ran on water-based Rosco “fog juice” with glycerine), two dry ice machines, and an in-house hydraulic elevator. The running crew numbered ten. The biggest technical problem was during the daytime techs. The changeover to the evening’s
The Entertainer took three hours, instead of the usual hour or hour and a half,
largely because the heavy floor had to be moved each time.
Theatre Crafts, March 1984