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Writer: Anton Chekhov, Heiner Müller, The Assembly

Adaptor: The Assembly

Director: Jess Chayes & Nick Benacerraf

Reviewer: Jamie Rosler

“In a world gone mad, what is the role of theatre?” So asks The Assembly in their production note in the program for the world premiere of SEAGULLMACHINE at La Mama. An innovative mash-up of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine, and additional contributions from the company, this production deftly explores art’s place in a changing world.

From the moment an audience member enters the space, before having the chance to take their seats, they are confronted with pre-show rituals, actors warming up, and stage managers calling the time until actors take their opening places. Breaking down the walls between backstage and onstage is no longer a groundbreaking choice, but the adeptness with which The Assembly handles the switch is impressive. It also sets the solid foundation for further exploration of seeming contradictions. The internal and the external, art and politics, action and inaction, are all given space to breathe in this production.

Chekhov’s plays are notoriously difficult to produce pitch perfectly, but The Assembly comes rather close. Every character is believably dramatic, feeling the highest stakes for even the lowliest actions. Every choice clearly affects both the character that makes it and the outcome of ensuing events for other people. Reality can be tortured, and it can be hilarious. This production hits all the right comedic notes, especially the dark ones. One challenge in producing classics on stage, Chekhovian or otherwise, is the ability to engage an audience from start to finish when they already know what the outcome is going to be. One solution to that problem is simply to change the ending, as blasphemous as proponents of tradition might find it. Yet keep in mind, this isn’t The Seagull, it’s SEAGULLMACHINE. An almost complete performance of the classic play is entirely upended at the final line, with a transition into The Assembly’s rendition of Hamletmachine that must have come out of a conversation that began, what is the opposite of the play’s written ending, in both action and style? Without giving too much away, there are sequins. 

Hamletmachine was created in the late 1970s in East Germany. Like The Seagull, its initial performance was an abject failure but it has since become an icon of art and literature. Inspired by the closely related themes of mold-breaking, moving forward into the future, and creating and accepting new ideas, this production makes an unexpected melding of two seemingly opposite plays appear obvious, as though it’s shocking that someone hadn’t already created it.

This ultimately joyous production is a thrill to encounter from start to finish. Jess Chayes and Nick Benacerraf’s direction unites several complicated elements and allows for smoothness where a less-skilled eye would create coarseness. Costumes designed by Kate Fry transport us to a past that is just as easily the present, and create, along with the commitment and exuberance of the talented ensemble, a beautiful magic in the production’s final scenes. Elements of multimedia (sound, video, and lighting designed by Asa Wember, Ray Sun, and Miriam Nilofa Crowe, respectively) enhance exploration of the above-listed contradictions without ever upstaging the humanity at their centers. By the final curtain call, it seems inarguably true that art and theatre can be more than leisurely diversions meant to distract the populace. When created bravely, with an eye to the future, art can save us from ourselves.

Runs until 5 May 2018 | Image: Theo Cote for La MaMa

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