Chekhov's `Seagull' gets a nautical roost


Theater preview

"The Seagull"

"The Seagull," produced by Printer's Devil Theatre, opens on the Kalakala ferry, Lake Union, on Wednesday and plays Wednesday-Sunday through July 21 ($10-15; 206-328-2690).


A disused ballroom on a rusting ferryboat.

That's the setting for the new Printer's Devil Theatre adaptation of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull." And for director Kip Fagan, presenting the show on the historic Kalakala ferry, which is docked at Lake Union, is no gimmick.

"The lake in Chekhov's play is such an important image," says Fagan, the co-artistic director of Printer's Devil. "It's like a magnet that brings so much love toward it. We have a real lake, and it's so beautiful to look at through the windows of the Kalakala - especially at night. It just made perfect sense to do it there."

Fagan also spots a poetic parallel between the well-weathered, out-of-commission Kalakala, built in 1936, and "The Seagull," penned by Chekhov in 1896.

"They're both fraying, rusting, kind of at the end of their tethers, but also beautiful and simple," he notes. "And there's this cliche of having birches in the sets of Chekhov plays. They were his favorite trees, because they were simple and common. We kind of equate the boat's simplicity and rusty walls with those old birch trees."

If the boyish-looking Fagan holds firm ideas about "The Seagull," and how to stage it, he's had plenty of time to develop them.

His adaptation of this bittersweet reflection of two generations of Russians with clashing views on art and love has been three years in the making.

"Several years ago I had a temp job where I didn't have to do much," Fagan recalls, "so it gave me a lot of time to go over about 10 different translations of `The Seagull.' It was a really good process looking through them, because it got me deep inside the play."

The next step was staging a reading of his cobbled-together script in 1997, while the nationally-respected Printer's Devil was in residence at NADA, an off-Off Broadway theater.

Work on the project intensified after Heidi Schreck, a blond, fresh-faced company member who also plays the vulnerable young actress Nina in the show, became Fagan's co-adaptor.

"Because Heidi speaks Russian she was able to understand a lot of things from the original that I couldn't get," informs Fagan.

"But you know, I like what Raymond Carver wrote about translating Chekhov. He said it's like robbing from a really, really wealthy man. No matter how much you take away, it's so rich that there's always more."

Adds Schreck, "With Chekhov, it's not just the words that are important, but also the language of feelings. To get the audience involved, you have to invite them into those moments of feelings."

With a cast of 11 actors, including several from outside the company, "The Seagull" marks a new phase in the Printer's Devil work.

It's the first classic play tackled by this maverick fringe troupe, which has focused on energized mountings of gutsy modern works by such writers as Erik Ehn, Erin Cressida Wilson and Nicky Silver.

The trend extends into the fall, when Fagan's artistic cohort Paul Willis leads the charge on another century-old masterwork: Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler."

But Fagan says Printer's Devil isn't going retro. For instance, he's taking a "mix and match" approach to the costumes and furnishings in "The Seagull" that reflects both Chekhov's time and our own.

And Fagan, an Oberlin College drop-out still in his 20s, is quick to articulate why this 100-year-old Russian drama remains timely.

"It speaks to me very directly," he declares. "I'm astonished at every rehearsal by how contemporary and meaningful it seems.

"Chekhov was one of the first playwrights to drift away from story and plot, and concentrate on relationships. I think this is the play that made it possible for people to write the kind of new plays I love today. And of its kind, it's never been surpassed."