Steppenwolf’s Seagull opens a beautiful new space

“Here is a theatre. No curtain, no wings, no landscape. Just an empty place.” Konstantin Treplev, the young and hungry artist manque in Anton Chekhov’s Seagull, speaks these words before the disastrous and failed premiere of his play for his family. But at the Saturday opening of ensemble member Yasen Peyankov’s production in Steppenwolf, it certainly felt like a clear-throat, point-to-the-room-around-you moment.

Seagull
until 6/12: Tues-Fri 19:30, Sat-Sun 14:30 and 19:30; also Wed 255-6/8, 2 p.m.; Sun 29-5-6/12, 2:30 PM only; no shows Sat 14-5; open subtitles Thu 19 5/19, 19:30 and Sat 11 6, 14:30; ASL performed Sun 22/5, 19:30; audio description and touch tour Sun 6/5, 2.30 pm (touch tour 1 pm); Steppenwolf Theater, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org, $20-$88.

The room in question is Steppenwolf’s new Ensemble Theater (officially the Ensemble Theater in honor of Helen Zell, as multimillion-dollar complexes need generous donors), and it just happens to be in the rounds. So: No curtain. No wings. Obviously the benches on the podium for Treplev’s family are first lined up for a proscenium setup and then reconfigured for the round. But there is a setting in Treplev’s play, where his beloved Nina is first lifted from the wooden floor on a circular platform and then enveloped by a white cage-like structure that descends from the ceiling.

It’s a strange moment, and one that encompasses some of the incongruities in Peyankov’s staging. (He also translated and adapted the script; according to a program note by co-artistic directors Glenn Davis and Audrey Francis, he’s been working on it for 15 years.) Why would Treplev talk passionately about the importance of the empty stage, just to deploy mechanical constructions? ? Is it to show us that he lacks the power of his strongly formulated beliefs? Or is this staging choice to reassure the audience that semi-fancy stagecraft is still on tap in the new house? The former can be interesting to explore, but the latter gets in the way.

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