”We need new forms!” bellows the anguished Konstantin (Ryan O’Nan), lamenting the limp state of plays in this translation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, the one-stop perennial for the tortured artist in dramatic lore. There’s a reason Mike Nichols was able to assemble Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Natalie Portman for a 2001 alfresco version in NYC, yet despite how often it surfaces, most versions seem to wallow in quivering-lip land, where actors pensively deliver each — line — like — this.
Not so with Russian helmer Viacheslav Dolgachev’s boisterous, vibrant version at Classic Stage Company, which actually does manage to find new forms in a bold retelling — which is to say, the old form. (In Chekhov and Dolgachev’s country, The Seagull is commonly perceived as a comedy.) The human components gathered in a farmhouse who wax poetic while trying to fight off boredom zip and glide across the stage with almost whiplash-inducing abandon. In lieu of the quaintness that characterizes most Seagulls, we’re exposed to a zigzag of emotions — a character can feel rhapsodic elation one moment, and corpulent resentment the next.
Luckily, the mostly American cast can mesh with the fiery machinations of such an approach. The tense, exciting first section — which runs a full-play’s-length 110 minutes — produces a particularly jolting effect. (And given that Dolgachev reportedly uses a translator to give direction, all the more impressive.) The regal Dianne Wiest — while being a tad too aged to pull off a line like ”I could play a girl of 15 with no trouble at all” — is an inspired choice to play the vain, terrified actress Arkadina, simply because of the actress’ built-in indomitability (she even utters ”speak no more!” at one point, recalling her legendary, also-vain actress in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway). Alan Cumming has a nicely reserved turn as Arkadina’s younger lover Trigorin; Kelli Garner’s both winsome and beautifully expressive as Russian doll Nina; O’Nan is a manic yet nuanced Konstantin, the troubled genius; and best of all is David Rasche, in a spectacularly droll interpretation of the good doctor who tries to make poignant sense of the goings-on around him.
Not every grand gesture works — one could do without the rather unfortunate-looking, over-symbolic stuffed bird and the sound effects of whooping — and the post-intermission scenes unfold in a more traditional (yet still sturdy) manner that recalls more standard Chekhov interpretations. But even within the limitations of the Classic Stage Company’s playing area, this production looms large. And by pushing the material further and further out of the comfort zone where it has resided for decades, Dolgachev has also rediscovered its roots. (Tickets: 212-352-3101 or classicstage.org) B+