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Archive for Thursday, April 23, 1998

USES PLAY-WITHIN-A-PLAY DEVICE

April 23, 1998

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Anton Chekhov's comedy explores the relationship between the theater and the society it serves.

``The Sea Gull'' is the first play by Anton Chekhov that Paul Meier, Kansas University associate professor of theater and film, has ever directed. It is also the first play by Chekhov to be staged by University Theatre in the past 10 years.

``Everyone reveres Chekhov. ... The more you spend time with (the play), the more there is. It's a bottomless well,'' Meier said.

The first of four plays that made Chekhov a master playwright of modern time, ``The Sea Gull'' was a big flop when it was first produced. Audiences expected a comedy that would keep them laughing. While the play's candid look at society was comic in its inadequate grasp on the fundamentals of social living, its consequences were tragic.

``It's a comedy built about the tragic,'' Meier said. ``The leading character commits suicide. The leading lady has an unwanted pregnancy, runs away, ... is deserted by her lover and goes mad. ... It's a tale of unrequited love. Nobody gets the person they want.''

In the play, an aging Russian actress returns to her country home after a tour of the provinces, during which she had to deal with a lost love and serious financial woes. When she and her current lover, a novelist, return home, the woman finds her son has prepared a poetic and symbolic play for their enjoyment.

But the son's play is a disaster and his mother tells him so. The star, a neighbor girl experiencing the first throes of love, is crushed by the reaction of her friends.

Meier said he believes the young man and his actress mother are modeled on the Shakespearean characters Hamlet and Gertrude.

``Just as in `Hamlet,' so in `The Sea Gull' is there a play within a play and the predominant metaphor is that of the theater itself. The play is peopled by writers, actors, wannabe actors and writers. Much of what preoccupies the characters are matters of literary or theatrical issues,'' he said.

The play's scenic design, under the direction of Tony Fuemmeler, will suggest four separate locations. The scenery is both three-dimensional and two-dimensional to reflect the discussion about theatrical representation. For example, the paintings hanging on a wall may be actual artworks or just images the crew has painted there.

The majority of the 13-member cast are freshmen and sophomores and are doing a good job with the play, according to Meier.

``They seem to have a strong spiritual connection to the characters they play,'' he said.

Those wishing to know more about the production can call up its website, www.ukans.educ/~chekhov. The site includes renderings of the costumes, biographies of cast members, information about the play and Chekhov and a recording with the correct pronunciations of the characters' Russian names.

-- Jan Biles' phone message number is 832-7146. Her e-mail address is jbiles@ljworld.com.

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