The Seagull in Connecticut

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Actor and playwright Michael Raver (photo by Kai D)

ACTOR MICHAEL RAVER seems equally at home on stage and on screen.  Having appeared recently off-Broadway in the Aquila Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet and the National Actors' Theatre production of The Persians, among other productions, Raver also plays physicist Richard Feynman in an upcoming Discovery Channel film, How We Built the Bomb

But for Raver, acting is not enough.  A reading last month of his new play, Fire On Babylon, brought out a standing-room-only audience of New York’s theater cognoscenti, and next week he’s appearing in a reading of his own adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece The Seagull, in which he plays the idealistic, tortured aspiring writer Konstantin, who winds up killing himself.  Directed by Edwin Cahill, who also directed Fire On Babylon, the reading also includes Broadway stars Michael Cerveris (Sweeney Todd, Assassins, etc.) in the role of "Bruce," which is based on Chekhov's Trigorin, the successful novelist, and Judy Kaye (Phantom of the OperaNice Work If You Can Get It, etc.) as "Irene," based on Arkadina, the grande-dame actress.

Raver’s Seagull brings the actor/playwright back to New York's Pearl Theatre, where he'd previously served as understudy in a production of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré.  He describes the Pearl as “a warm group of people who really care about the classical realm.  They champion it with a sense of fun and extreme intelligence.  It's wonderful.  Sacred but never precious." Speaking of sacred, we wanted to know what inspired Raver to tackle a play like The Seagull (and change its time, place, and character names), so we chatted with him about the task over coffee.

CLASSICAL TV:   Michael, why adapt a classic like The Seagull, rather than just present the play as is?  What was the vision or goal guiding you in the task, and what have you done, structurally, to adapt it?

MICHAEL RAVER:  It started out as an exercise.  As I move forward with a career as a playwright, creating my own, original material, I wanted a writing exercise-- in the same way that a dancer will take a dance class.  Writers don’t have that built into our environment.  I mean, we can go to writers’ workshops, but we don’t have as many of those tools at the ready.  One of things I decided early on as a playwright was that adaptation was a fantastic way to remind myself of the writer’s discipline and the ebb and flow of boundaries within a piece of literature.

CTV:  So, like a painter who goes to a museum to copy a masterpiece…?

MR:  In some ways, yes—though most of the time, painters who copy masterpieces are not going to include that work in a gallery showing.  Most of the time, it’s just for them.  And in this case, I did write the adaptation only for me.  Whenever I write something, it’s totally self-involved.  There’s a large amount of narcissism necessary for it.  Introspection—it’s all self-oriented.  But then once I turn that over to someone else, it ceases to be about me.  Even if it’s something that’s intensely autobiographical, it’s not for me to say definitely, “These are the rules by which the work has to be done.”  Of course, it’s my hope to be included in the discussion [laughs]…

CTV:  Why this particular play?

MR: I did it because I was going through some personal things at the time and I identified with Konstantin.  The story spoke to me in a very intense way, as it perhaps hadn’t in years prior.  The initial draft of this play was done in six days….

CTV:   What personal things, may I ask?

MR:  Oh.  I was coming out of being romantically interested in someone who did not reciprocate that feeling, so during this very emotional six-day period I kept thinking about Konstantin loving Nina, and Nina loving Trigorin, and Arkadina loving Trigorin—the whole play is full of characters who are in love with the wrong person.  I identified with that and thought I had something to say about it.

undefinedundefinedJudy Kaye appears as Irene (Arkadina) and Michael Cerveris appears as Bruce (Trigorin), in Michael Raver's adaptation of The Seagull

CTV:  What kind of changes did you make when you adapted the play?   You told me earlier that you changed the characters’ names….

MR:  Yes.  And I changed the time and the place.  It takes place in the summer of 1937, in New London, Connecticut—and there were a couple of reasons for choosing that specific summer.  That was just before America entered into World War II, and so you have this group of characters who are, much like they were in Chekhov’s Russia, blithely unaware of a huge change that was about to happen for them.  They’re complaining all the things that they’re complaining about—being in love with the wrong people—when there is this huge shift taking place.  For me, the amazing thing is the relationship between the microcosm to the macrocosm.  The relationship between two people, in my opinion, can mirror the difficulty between two nations.  

If you look at the struggle between Germany and essentially everybody else during that time, many of those issues could potentially be reduced to…

CTV:  The personal?

MR:  Yeah—two people having an argument.

CTV:  So your adaptation becomes a way of not only talking about these characters but the world at that time.

MR:  Yes-- and of talking about the continuity between Chekhov and American playwrights.  I mean, Chekhov is so about modern dialog and the notion of what’s not said.  Previous to that, in nineteenth-century theater, characters just said what they felt.  Then playwrights like Chekhov and Ibsen and everybody who followed changed all that-- even American counterparts like Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.  Which is one of the reason why I chose an American setting, because those guys were so absolutely influenced by Chekhov.  There’s such a thread of continuity between O’Neill and Chekhov that I thought if I was going to update The Seagull, I wanted there to be a direct conversation between his work and theirs, throughout the entire play.

CTV:  Nice.

MR:  Each time I updated something it seemed to make sense.  For example, one of the things often misconceive, is that Chekhov calls this play a comedy.  And yet each time his plays are produced they are these very somber productions—people roll their eyes, and rightfully so.  What’s brilliant about The Seagull is that Chekhov takes something like depression and shows it to be equally as absurd as terrifying.   Konstantin shoots himself in the first part of the play-- he can’t even successfully kill himself and it ends up being a joke.  And then toward the end he shoots himself again and he’s successful, and he dies-- and that’s heart-wrenching and tragic.

CTV:  Why did you choose to play that part yourself, Michael?

MR:  It was a group decision, actually, after we'd arranged for the reading of the adaptation.

CTV:  Oh.  But you wanted to play some part…?

MR:   I was happy to play a part, but I’m not a playwright who writes solely for himself.  And I have to say that the second I go into rehearsal, once I step out onto the stage with the other actors, the play does not belong to me.  The production of a play requires a number of people to come to the table.  Once I offer it up, I do not own it….

For more about the Pearl Theatre, go here.  Below, Michael Raver and Jeffrey Hayenga in Raver's play Fire On Babylon.

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