“Seagulls,” by Beth Hyland, is a modern take on “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov. Hyland narrows the scope of the play by cutting out more than half the original characters, but expands it by including live music performed by the actors—Chekhov’s protagonists produce more angst than art.
Chekhov’s bourgeois and working-class cast included Treplev, Nina, Masha, Medvedenko, Arkadina, Trigorin and lesser roles; in this production we follow the lives of Con, Nina, Masha and Simon, four college students in a band called “Seagulls”—not “THE Seagulls,” gosh!—with hopes of making it big in the music industry.
Presented by Oak Park Festival Theatre, the adaptation features eight original songs written by Hyland, performed as solos by each character or together as the band. These are standard four-chord pop tunes that lack real hooks. The best songs are Nina’s breakout hit, “Muse,” and Con’s tongue-in-cheek avant-rock single, “Something New.” The rest are tepid boilerplate.
Con (Ryan Kirby) longs to emerge from the shadow of his mother, a famous musician who is dating another famous musician, Ben. Con rebels by producing a dark tune and edgy persona, much to the chagrin of his friends and family.
Masha (Veronique Le) is a chill semi-goth who sings and plays keyboard in the band but harbors a secret affection for one of her bandmates, and it’s not good-natured Simon (Julio Cesar Gutierrez), the band’s bass player and Masha’s boyfriend.
Nina (Aurora Penepacker) is the standout talent in the band. In her song, “Muse,” she strings together a lovely legato melisma that twists around the rhythm of lightly strummed guitar chords. It’s no surprise that Ben, while seeing the band at a college event with Con’s mother, offers to take Nina under his wing and make her a pop music star.
Missed are Chekhov’s diverse and fully developed roster of characters—although Con’s mother and Ben have an impact on the story in big ways, they exist only between scenes and never make an appearance. The actors who do appear present each character as solid and satisfying. Carrying a narrative originally meant for an ensemble of twelve or more, but reduced to four, is a heavy task. Lucky for us, this troupe is strong.
Hyland uses the tighter roster to get right to the core themes of expectation-vs.-reality and amour-propre, Rousseau’s theory of toxic self-love produced by comparing oneself to others.
Con hit the genetic jackpot. He could easily settle into a life of wealth and privilege. However, if there is no possibility of eclipsing his mother’s fame, what’s the point of even trying? Is it better to live humbly or die out of righteous indignation?
Meanwhile, Nina has everything that Con wants. The experience, rife with sexism and abuse, sickens her. Will they stop comparing themselves to others and realize what truly matters in life or continue to drift apart?
Hyland’s “Seagulls” is a Chekhovian philosophical reflection on self and society but with a twenty-first-century twist, an experience that can be compared to no other.
“Seagulls” is presented by Oak Park Festival Theatre and runs through November 19 at Pleasant Home, 217 Home Avenue, Oak Park. Tickets are $45 at oakparkfestival.com.