Photo by Ed Kreiger

Perfectly respectable productions of Anton Chekhov’s plays performed locally over the past several seasons have been awash in dour poignancies, somber ironies and a generalized ennui, all flowing from an icy pool of philosophizing aristocrats. Though there’s been some evidence of the Russian master’s subterranean humor, it’s somehow always felt like hard work, for the actors and the audience, to cut through the reverential freeze.

But in her just-closed staging of The Seagull for the Actors Co-op, Diane Venora may be the first director since Norwegian Stein Winge opened LATC with his lunatic The Three Sisters (1985) to treat a Chekhov play not so much as a text, but as a piece of music. The result was a warm breeze — the freshest and most vibrant Chekhov seen here in a decade and a half.

Masha (Marianne Savell), dressed in funereal black, opens the play with the devastating line “I’m in mourning for my life.” (And that’s one of her more frivolous moments.) She yearns for neighbor and fledgling writer Konstantin (Bruce Ladd), who loves aspiring actress Nina (understudy Michelle Dunker) so much that he writes for her the leading role in his own artsy play, performed on an impromptu stage in the woods. The event is a disaster, attended and dismissed by Konstantin’s jealous, stingy stage-star mother, Irina (the excellent Kristina Lankford), and her beau, a very successful short-story writer, Trigorin (John Hugo), a slave to his craft who is also painfully aware of the shortcomings in both his character and talent. Meanwhile, a doctor (Edward Symington), fatigued by that profession, encourages Konstantin as best he can, and, like the doctors in all of Chekhov’s plays, has the smartest lines. (Chekhov was a doctor, fatigued by that profession.) Oedipal stress among Konstantin, his mother and Trigorin goes largely unrelieved over the fleeting years, during which Konstantin keeps trying to shoot himself, the play’s every romantic attraction goes unrequited, and every ambition is driven to its knees.

This is what the Russians call comedy, and not without reason. The principal characters have many fevered and eloquent speeches — darts that, at least half the time, amusingly miss their targets. This provides some comedic compensation for the ache that occurs when, the other half of the time, the characters hit the bull’s-eye. Similarly, and given a certain emotional remove, the ongoing battle between dreams and misfortunes turns the stage into something of a Punch and Judy show.

As in music, Chekhov’s themes aren’t so much literary — cautionary, say, or allegorical — as they are lyrical, carrying motifs and resonances, symmetries and rhythms. The result is not moral but tonal, very much dependent on the vision, wit and capacities of the director.

Venora’s staging made no attempt to update the material, although she treated the words less as belonging to what we’ve come to think of as a play by Chekhov, and more as a playful Haydn quartet. Her production opened with voices and noises from all corners of the theater, people babbling and — as in the later, “serious” conversations — talking over each other. Gary Lee Reed’s set decorated the stage with a series of suspended, translucent linens, hung from wires so as to open or enclose the tiny stage. This not only provided a weightless aesthetic; it gave the playing area — slightly larger than a walk-in closet and with almost no height to speak of — an illusion of depth. Even an onstage piano didn’t crowd things.

A large part of Scene 1 had characters hidden behind the drapery — an approach to the play that, upending traditional tenets of stagecraft, is clearly more concerned with sounds than with “meaning.” This idea was further supported by Peter Stenshoel’s music and sound design, employing the echoes of a piano (sometimes recorded, sometimes played onstage), the tinkling of a music box (boomed far too aggressively over the sound system) or bird song to accompany large blocks of the production. In one scene, with all the characters gathered onstage simultaneously chattering day-to-day minutiae, they stopped for some unexplained reason to gaze out in the audience’s direction during what must have been at least 15 seconds of tense silence — broken, finally, by somebody commenting on the weather.

None of this would have been supportable if Paul Schmidt’s translation of the play didn’t breathe so easily, or if Venora’s cast weren’t topflight. Savell’s Masha had the comic audacity of Roseanne — a broadness of style that strained against the text until her heartbreak surfaced and the reason for her clowning became apparent. Ladd’s handsome Konstantin somehow combined emotional thunder with infantile petulance, creating a kind of parody of Hamlet. And, for the play’s duration, not an actor onstage appeared out of place.

We have concurrently performing musicals, also about show biz, that demonstrate how Stephen Sondheim has adapted Chekhov’s theme of suffocated passion into musical theater, while employing many of the good doctor’s tonalities.

Follies (book by James Goldman) concerns a pair of aging couples at a 30-year-reunion party, as the New York City theater at which they all worked (the women in the chorus line, the men as stage-door johnnies) is being downsized into a parking lot. The characters see ghosts of their former selves and, while nibbling on the cake of nostalgia, face their failures and frustrations.

The rudimentary question posed by Tim Dang’s sluggish if pretty staging for East West Players is why any theater — particularly one that’s paying Equity wages — would put on a musical, particularly a Sondheim musical, with a cast that mostly can’t sing. The play is largely about pointlessness, but there must be a more appealing way to drive it home.

West Coast Ensemble fares much better with 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along (book by George Furth), Sondheim’s musical remake of George Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1934 stage play of the same title, which follows backward in time a trio of friends (Anthony Paul Meindl, Richard Israel and Lisa Picotte) involved in the entertainment industry — some successful, some not, all frustrated.

The musical is legendary for its stink-bomb New York premiere, which severed professional ties between Sondheim and Harold Prince. (It recovered somewhat in a 1985 La Jolla Playhouse revival.) “All we get is fatuous attitudinizing about how ambition, success and money always lead to rack and ruin,” wrote Frank Rich in The New York Times. (The same could be said of The Seagull, which the critics similarly drubbed at its opening.)

The general complaint about Merrily has been that its characters — with their situational ethics, hollow lives and career frustrations — are not the kind of people one wants to follow backward in time, or forward, or in any other direction. Borrowing from Rich, the word fatuous could be easily applied to that argument, as the musical’s point, like Chekhov’s, is not to heap goo upon the characters but to expose their flaws, to view them against the larger shapes of destiny.

Jules Aaron’s staging is so snappy and textured, and his cast so fine, that the characters’ evident shortcomings become submerged, finally, by the score’s intricate, operatic juxtapositions of melodies, rhythms and key signatures. As in Chekhov, the point is not an argument but a feeling. At play’s end, we see the central trio on an apartment roof gazing up as Sputnik hurtles by. They believe they’re on the brink of something significant. By this time we’ve seen their future — their weddings, betrayals and divorces, the flights and nosedives in their careers — and the irony is as blistering as that of the title.

Aaron has never been known for his light touch. His production of Company, a couple of years back for this same troupe, tended to reduce poignancies to campy jokes. Here, however, he shows considerably more respect for the material, and the tone is just right: a tenderness and a sardonic crackling that keeps the maudlin at bay.

By GEORGE FURTH (book) and STEPHEN SONDHEIM (music and lyrics) | At WEST COAST ENSEMBLE, 522 N. La Brea Ave. | Through July 8

FOLLIES | By JAMES GOLDMAN (book) and STEPHEN SONDHEIM (music and lyrics)
Presented by EAST WEST PLAYERS at the DAVID HENRY HWANG THEATER, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo | Through June 25

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