NEEDHAM — Under the leadership of artistic director Igor Golyak, the Arlekin Players Theatre has earned a reputation for fearlessly innovative staging. Its presentations of Marius von Mayenburg’s “The Stone’’ and Mikhail Bulgakov’s “A Dead Man’s Diary: A Theatrical Novel’’ ranked among the most fascinating productions of the past two years hereabouts.
But a strength can boomerang into a weakness if utilized to excess. A case in point is Golyak’s undeniably creative but overly gimmicky adaptation of “The Seagull,’’ Anton Chekhov’s classic 1896 drama of misplaced love and unfulfilled ambition.
The distinctive qualities of “The Seagull,’’ as well as outstanding performances by Anne Gottlieb and Nael Nacer, are at least partly obscured by the heavy-handed conceptual framework that Golyak (who also directs) wraps around the play. His meta-theatrical production is so busy commenting on “The Seagull’ and on the creative process that it can be hard to see the play itself.
“The Seagull’’ was such a disastrous failure when it was first produced in St. Petersburg in 1896 that a despondent Chekhov vowed to stop writing for the stage. Luckily for us, he didn’t. Luckily for him, “The Seagull’’ was revived in 1898 at the Moscow Art Theatre under Stanislavsky’s direction and was seen for what it was: Chekhov’s first fully realized dramatic work and an early embodiment of the psychological realism that became one of his trademarks, along with an unrivaled skill at exploring the ennui and despair of stalled or wasted lives.
But the Arlekin production doesn’t demonstrate much trust in that kind of quiet nuance, instead offering a coffin full of (fake) dead seagulls, a set that moves back and forth across a sand-covered stage, glowing orbs pulled from that sand, a noose, a hammock, an assault rifle, spasmodic dance sequences, an extended chunk of a speech that is spoken in French, and the interpolation of excerpts from Chekhov’s letters and diaries into the dialogue. The result is intermittently engrossing but choppy; momentum no sooner begins to develop than it is broken.
Set on a country estate owned by Sorin (Dev Luthra), “The Seagull’’ revolves chiefly around his sister, Irina Arkadina (Gottlieb), an aging actress of considerable vanity and self-absorption; her hotheaded playwright son Konstantin (Eliott Purcell); doleful young Masha (Darya Denisova), who famously opens “The Seagull’’ by intoning that she always wears black because “I’m in mourning for my life’’; Boris Trigorin (Nacer), a commercially successful novelist; and Nina (Irina Bordian), an aspiring actress. Golyak himself plays Dorn, a local doctor, and he also portrays the director of what amounts to a play-within-a-play. With the two halves of the audience facing each other across a narrow, black-box playing space, we see the actors, with numbers on the back of their clothes, being cast in their roles; at one point, Gottlieb addresses Purcell as “Eliott.”
Once events begin to unfold in “The Seagull,’’ unrequited love abounds. Masha is in love with Konstantin, but he is passionately besotted with Nina. She, however, has fallen under the spell of the much older Trigorin, whose mistress is Irina but whose chief object of affection is himself. This matter of loving the wrong person proves to have dire consequences, especially for Nina and Konstantin.
Nacer, delivering yet another masterful performance, simultaneously conveys Trigorin’s compulsion to write during every waking moment and the pervasive self-disgust that makes those efforts seems pointless. Gottlieb is similarly riveting, especially in a scene in which Irina desperately pleads with Trigorin not to leave her, laying bare the vulnerability beneath the displays of ego. But none of the other performances rise to the level of Nacer’s and Gottlieb’s. Purcell doesn’t take us very deep into the torment of Konstantin. Ditto for the portrayals of Nina by Bordian and of Masha by Denisova (who was splendid in “The Stone’’).
The determination of director Golyak and the Arlekin Players Theatre to explore and experiment with new theatrical forms is to be admired, and there is every reason to look forward to their next production. But this time around, a match that seemed made in heaven — between Russia’s greatest dramatist and a theater company with deep Russian roots — turns out to be a rather strained union.
Play by Anton Chekhov. Adapted and directed by Igor Golyak. At Arlekin Players Theatre, Needham, through Dec. 8. Tickets $45-$65, 617-942-0022, www.arlekinplayers.com