Senior Glynis Gilio, junior Austin Benson, and freshman Jake McKie act in “The Seagull.“
Zane Miller | Courtesy

After Pro­fessor of Theater James Brandon and his wife decided to adopt a child from Russia, he felt an oblig­ation to at least try to learn a little Russian. As a theater pro­fessor and lover of cinema, he knew where to go. He marched into Mossey Library and checked out all the Russian lan­guage movies — nearly 50 in all — and watched one each night to learn phrases and try to grasp the Russian idiom.

After two weeks, he inserted the next disc from the stack, “Chayka,” from 1970. It looked grainy and boot­legged, as if someone had brought a cam­corder into a Russian movie house and sold the recording.

But after a few moments Brandon rec­og­nized it as Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”

The real­ization intrigued him, even though Brandon was prej­u­diced against the Russian play­wright after reading him early in college.

“I hated Chekov when I first encoun­tered him,” Brandon said. “Bored me. I wasn’t ready to listen, there are some things you don’t get right away.”

But seeing Rus­sians acting the play opened his eyes to its beauty and com­plexity.

And now the Tower Players of Hillsdale College tackle this pivotal work in the­atrical and artistic history on the Markel stage from Wednesday through Sat­urday with per­for­mances at 8 p.m. with a 2 p.m. Sat­urday matinee. 

Brandon likens the play’s second pre­miere to the fall of Con­stan­tinople. And that is not too bold a com­parison. “The Seagull” is the con­sum­mation of realist and nat­u­ralist ele­ments into which 19th century theater had only dipped its big toe.

Before Chekhov, Ibsen, and Strindberg, theater was purely pre­sen­ta­tional. The actors addressed the audience in loud voices, making for per­for­mances that would seem like mere poetry recitation to a con­tem­porary audience.

After the play flopped ini­tially, Chekhov elicited the help of Kon­stantin Stanislavski to develop a method of acting for realist drama. 

“Stanislavski basi­cally said ‘hold my beer’ and changed every­thing,” Brandon said.

Nowadays, any acting on tele­vision or in a film is the kind of acting that Chekhov and Stanislavski pio­neered with the Moscow Art theater.

The Tower Players, under Brandon’s direction, debuted with a suc­cessful per­for­mance on Wednesday night and will perform this landmark play throughout the weekend. 

The Tower Players will use Curt Columbus’ trans­lation of Chekhov’s work, which Brandon said is “dynamite.” It is mus­cular and col­lo­quial, cor­recting many errors which British trans­lators have made in their attempts to connect with an American audience.

“The Seagull” tells the story of a household that has coa­lesced around Madame Irina Arkadina and shows the trials and struggles that arise from passion and artistic inspi­ration.

“The show is about how people approach life and how they deal with love,” senior Nikolai Dignoti said. “Some people want to love each other and be true to each other without seeing the bad things in the world. The hap­piest people are the ones who know life is dif­ficult.”

Dignoti said the play’s themes of per­se­verance and sur­vival offer insight into the Russian psyche.

“They believe that it will be better when it’s over, when you go to heaven,” he said.

It is a dif­ficult play, with subdued dia­logue, off-stage action, and complex emo­tional land­scapes which mark the final Tower Players per­for­mance for two great actors: Dignoti and senior Glynis Gilio.

Gilio plays Arkadina with power, vul­ner­a­bility, and restraint cracking her emo­tional facade only when absolutely nec­essary. 

“Glynis is freaking killing it,” Dignoti said.

To prepare for her role, Gilio said she rehearsed in a corset and spent hours doing vocal exer­cises to find precise tones and inflec­tions to play the aging star. That work paid off as Gilio offers a mas­terful per­for­mance that draws the audience along through her clear emo­tional struggles.

Dignoti plays Peter Sorin, the ailing 60-year-old brother of Arkadina, with authen­ticity, resem­bling a grizzled Russian, suf­fering from alco­holism.

The senior duo knew they wanted to portray sib­lings as accu­rately as pos­sible. Dignoti and Gilio used Meisner tech­nique to help draw out sim­i­lar­ities between their two char­acters. In the tech­nique, two actors sit less than a foot apart. One states a fact, the other repeats. Then they move onto ques­tions and analysis of their con­ver­sation. 

“It is a great way to get in tune for another actor’s speech and pitch,” Dignoti said. “Our char­acters have lived together for at least thirty years, so they would have surely developed similar speech pat­terns and man­nerisms.”

This com­mitment to aes­thetic realism pro­vides the nuance and sub­tlety that makes the mas­ter­fully-written play sparkle on the Merkel stage.

The three other prin­cipals — Con­stantine Treplev, played by junior Lane Gaudet, Nina Zarechnaya, played by junior Rebecca Carlson, and Boris Trigorin, played by junior Austin Benson — all per­formed admirably.

Gaudet’s slim frame accen­tuates his youth and vitality during the first act, in which Treplev pre­miers his play, a strange mono­logue which he wrote for Nina, his lover. In the fourth act however, which occurs two years after the events of the first three acts, Treplev’s shoulders drop and his neck juts forward after countless hours spent craned over a desk scrib­bling away at his mas­ter­piece.

Carlson’s trans­for­mation is equally dra­matic. Her bright face and long hair make her por­trayal of Nina the picture of youth, espe­cially when standing next to Arkadina and her tightly-coiffed pom­padour. But in the final act, her hair is coiled into a bun, and in those two years she has had a child and lost it as her dream of becoming a great actress lies dead at her feet. 

Benson, adorned with a refined goatee, com­mands the stage for the majority of Act II as he relates the limits of fame to Nina. Despite his lit­erary success, he thinks his work is stilted and unin­spired. After estab­lishing himself as an amiable but strug­gling char­acter, Benson reveals the author’s sexual appetite in an under­stated yet shocking manner.

It is a well-rounded per­for­mance of a great play. The realist ele­ments are nicely incor­po­rated. In the latter two acts, char­acters sit with their backs turned to the audience without worry. Vocal pro­jection is audible but not self-aware. And the beauty of the script over­comes any of the actor’s faults.

By the end play, Treplev has lost his ide­alism, and says, “Art is not about new forms or old forms, but what a man writes, what flows freely from his heart.” I left the theater with that line sitting like an anchor in my chest. I teared up as I crossed the parking lot, shaken by the realism and beauty and unde­ter­mined sadness of “The Seagull.”