A Seagull in the Hamptons

Dave and I saw Emily Mann’s Chekhov adaptation, A Seagull in the Hamptons, at Shotgun Players on Friday and it’s one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time. It’s been extended through this Sunday so I urge all theater lovers to go see it. Mann translates The Seagull from a successful actress’s vacation home in the Russian countryside to a successful actress’s vacation home in the Hamptons, and it all works wonderfully well. The characters and situations seem more immediate and vivid, more understandable, easier both to laugh at and to sympathize deeply with. And it seems to me that the production conveys Chekhov’s own mix of comedy and pathos more truly and consistently than any other I’ve ever seen. The production is intensely human and painfully funny from the opening lines (“I’m in mourning for my life” is not just a poignant line but a very funny one as well in this production), and the final scene between Alex (Konstantin’s name in this version) and Nina is both hopeful and heartbreaking at the same time.

It’s a bit scary to realize how important The Seagull has been to me in my life, and yet how completely my view of it has changed over the decades. When I was in college, I identified a lot with Konstantin, the young, idealistic writer; now I find Konstantin maddeningly naive and pigheaded, and Trigorin carrying his damned notebook everywhere seems by far the more sensible artist to me now. He may well be third rate, as Konstantin thinks, as even he himself thinks; but I no longer think it’s the job of a writer to try not to be third rate, only to do his or her best and keep writing. And hopefully not try to evaluate or think too much about one’s ranking in the larger scheme of things; nothing will bring on depression, crappy writing, and/or writer’s block quicker than that. If one’s best turns out to be third rate, so be it; it’s only through by continuing to write as well as one can that one might become better, and if one never does, well, despite what they tried to teach me in college, the world badly needs more good third-rate art, too.

Now, some 30 years after my first acquaintance with the play, it seems to me that Nina is the one is this bunch most likely to ever become a really good artist. When we see her in the last scene she’s still in the throes of a lot of very painful disappointment and disillusion, but she’s forging ahead all the same, and even if she doesn’t realize it yet, she’s going to get her head straight one of these days and find that she’s learned more than she realizes from all the miserable small parts she’s been playing. The director and cast agree with that take on Nina in this production, I think; Alex/Konstantin doesn’t think she’s a good actor, but when she recites some of his ridiculous play again in the last scene, in this production she speaks it with so much genuine feeling that she even makes it sound like good writing, and we in the audience can see for ourselves that she has now achieved exactly what she said she dreamed of in the first act; but she still doesn’t realize this herself, nor does Alex see it. But Alex never will, and there are hints that Nina is already slowly starting to wake up to it. She still thinks of herself as the girl in Philip/Trigorin’s short story, the one whose life a man carelessly destroyed; she doesn’t yet realize that the real destruction of her life would be to end up like Milly/Masha, and that Philip didn’t destroy her life at all but saved it. Not that he intended to; he could just as easily have destroyed it through his weakness if she were a slightly different kind of young woman. He gets zero brownie points for saving her life. But he saved it, however accidentally, all the same. And if Nina hasn’t put all the pieces together yet, she will, if she keeps at it. And at the end of The Seagull it looks like she’s determined to keep at it.

At least, that’s how it looks to me now.

Anyway, this is a wonderful production. It runs one more week.

John Gabriel Borkman at the Aurora

On Sunday Dave and I saw John Gabriel Borkman at the Aurora Theater. Afterward I said to Dave, I think we just saw a performance of an opera libretto without the music.

I’d never seen or read the play before, which was Ibsen’s second to last. It’s a very spare play, and if my memory was correct when rereading some of it the next day, it was made even sparer by some cuts taken in the performance. The characters are drawn more in bold strokes than in realistic detail, and Borkman in particular is quite a bit larger than life. The story has a poetic, mythic, somewhat stylized quality to it that at times seems to call out for singing rather than speech.

It’s also a bleak play, beautiful and poignant and at times profoundly comic, but very bleak. Most of these characters are determined to live out their days in what amounts to a tomb of their own construction, hiding themselves away and holding out for others to redeem them, holding out for others to do things and to make sacrifices on their behalf that the others will surely never, ever make. In contrast is Borkman’s son, whom I couldn’t help but sympathize with in his determination to get as far away as possible from the tomb his elders have built for themselves, and would like to shut him into as well; yet whom at the same time I couldn’t help but dislike a bit for his shallowness and aimlessness, even as I could well understand why he’d grown up as he had.

With some words and music by artists who can find their way sympathetically into the souls of these very difficult people, I could see it making a good opera and perhaps a powerful one.

John Carpenter is terrific as Borkman. I’ve enjoyed his work for a couple of decades now, and I’ve always thought of him as a very good actor within a somewhat limited range, but in the last few years he’s been going well beyond that range and finding all sorts of depths I haven’t seen in his performances before. The other standout, I thought, was Karen Lewis as Ella Rentheim, who breathes remarkable life into the role; her scenes with Carpenter were high points for me. But nobody is anything less than very good in this cast.

Behinder and Behinder

Spent much of the weekend again at the bookstore’s new location, mostly figuring out how to make bookcases stand securely, without teetering or toppling, in the arrangement Dave wanted them. The ones standing against a wall, of course, are easy; the tricky ones are in the middle of the floor with nothing near them to anchor them to but other bookcases. But with some ingenuity and some spare lumber, I got them all up and pretty solidly in place. No guarantees if the Big One comes, but at least they won’t come down in a mild tremor or if a child tries to climb one. Or a cat, more to the point. The cats have been having fun jumping on and off them ever since we turned them loose in the new space.

So I’ve been at the bookstore every evening and weekend for a couple of weeks and am behind in everything. For example, it’s Tuesday and I’m still working on Friday’s Listener crossword puzzle, “Double Cross”. The instructions say that each clue actually leads to two words of the same length, and the solver has to figure out which one goes into the grid. This being the Listener puzzle, I figured that this was going to mean that I wouldn’t be able to tell which words went into the grid and which didn’t until I was just about finished, and that I’d need two copies of the grid, one to fill with one set of words and one to fill with the other, and that something near the end of the process would tell me which was the right grid.

Sure enough, that’s what’s going on so far. Things were getting so messy that this morning I took the puzzle into Pages (page layout software) and created one PDF with two copies of the grid and a second PDF with all the clues on one sheet, and recopied all my work so far onto those. That’s a little easier to work with. I have the grids about two-thirds filled in. A “cautionary message” is created one letter at a time as you solve the clues, and I have enough of these letters (about three-quarters of them) to be pretty sure what the message is going to be, but I have no idea yet how it’s supposed to help me.


I did finish last Friday’s Listener puzzle, called “Hexes”, though it took me longer than usual as I didn’t have much leisure time on the weekend. Fortunately it was relatively easy. Once I’d gotten enough letters from the clues to guess at the first of the names in the set, I thought of the correct set of names just about at once, and that information helped me solve several more clues and complete more of the left half of the grid. Then I had an idea about the names I was looking for in the grid, and that proved to be true, and once I’d found two of the names I knew what the rest of them had to be, and completing them in the grid helped me solve the rest of the puzzle pretty quickly.

Even so, I didn’t finish till Monday, and then I didn’t get my entry into the mail till this morning, so it may not even reach England by next weekend’s deadline.

Bookstore Moving, Everything Else on Hold

Dave’s science fiction bookstore in Berkeley, The Other Change of Hobbit, is moving to a new location (at 3264 Adeline, two blocks south of the Ashby BART station and a couple doors down from The Vault restaurant). They’ve been in their current location for 17 years and have accumulated a ton of stuff that now has to be moved. Of course, being an independent bookstore nowadays, this all has to be done on a shoestring, but quite a few regular customers have pitched in and helped. I’ve been helping mostly with the setup in the new space, figuring out how to arrange the bookcases and bolting them to the walls and so on. I worked through the last two weekends on the move and I’ll probably work through this one, too.

The store is currently open just 5 pm to 7 pm. Four cases of new releases and eight cases of paperbacks are now stocked. The new store has twice the sales floor space but a small fraction of the storage space, and a lot of stuff that has been in boxes in the basement for years is going to be going out on the sales floor as we get more cases up. Our goal is to be open full days tomorrow and Sunday, and then a grand opening next weekend.

Meanwhile, I’ve been bushed. I’m starting on a new play, my first spoken play in quite a long time, and I’m eager to work on that but I’ve had very little time for it. After the move is over I may take a few days off work and focus on that. I’ve got an outline and good first drafts of scenes two and three and a part of scene one, which I’ve written in small chunks of time here and there, but that’s less than half the first act, and there will be three.