Regina Taylor's "Drowning Crow" is one ambitious big bird.
Often strikingly theatrical, her rich, modern adaptation of "The Seagull" flies erratically, particularly in the drama-heavy second act when the expected domestic fireworks fail to ignite because of a crucial casting misstep.
Yet you have to admire Taylor's gumption in attempting such a project: an up-to-the-minute riff on Anton Chekhov's classic tale of unrequited love, mother-son insecurities and the tension involved in making art.
That's a lot to cover, but Taylor rarely loses her way through a dense, hip-hop forest of often flowery language.
The production, which Manhattan Theatre Club opened Thursday at Broadway's Biltmore Theatre, looks sensational. David Gallo's vivid, tropical designs -the setting is an island off the South Carolina coast - are augmented by Wendall K. Harrington's colorful video projections.
Taylor has added the element of race to her adaptation, with much of the conflict between two different generations of black artists. The matriarch Arkadina has been rechristened Josephine Nicholas Ark, perhaps with a nod to Josephine Baker and the Nicholas Brothers. She's "the Angela Davis of the American theater," according to one of her admirers.
Her son, Constantine, now a rapper called C-Trip, sneers at his mother's successful "Raisin in the Sun" career, saying "she thinks she is serving humanity with her sacred art." He also has unkind words for the world-weary Robert Alexander Trigor, who deserted a promising literary life for a more lucrative television gig at UPN, dubbed by C-Trip as the "Us Po' Negroes' network."
But then Josephine doesn't have much good to say about her son's theatrical endeavors either, particularly the raw, raucous piece he presents for his family on the island, which houses the family's vacation retreat. It's sort of an MTV-like music video transplanted to the stage.
One of the problems with the production is the conflict between mother and son. It never catches fire, barely smoldering because of Alfre Woodard's sparkless portrayal of Josephine.
The actress delivers a surprisingly bland performance, even though she's not as grotesque as Tyne Daly in the disastrous 1992 National Actors Theatre "Seagull" revival or as egomaniacally funny as the mesmerizing Meryl Streep three summers ago in a Central Park production.
It's too bad because Anthony Mackie has the anger required for the impetuous, unhappy son. He also generates considerable heat with Aunjanue Ellis who plays the naive local girl (Nina in the original Chekhov) he casts in his outlandish theater piece. Ellis delivers the evening's most affecting portrait. The young woman is heartbreakingly giddy, at her best when she encounters the famous Trigor, played with urbane ennui by Peter Francis James.
Director Marion McClinton has shrewdly cast the other supporting roles, particularly the three older men who seemingly are trapped on the island: Paul Butler as Josephine's older brother, Stephen McKinley Henderson as the plantation's overseer and especially Roger Robinson as the aging doctor carrying on with the overseer's wife.
Besides rap, bits and pieces of pop tunes such as "Mona Lisa" and "I Get A Kick Out of You" and spirituals (those hymns are delivered with considerable force by Ebony Jo-Ann) snake their way through the evening. But it's Taylor's language that provides most of the music, melodies that are strangely in tune with Chekhov's own notes of discord.
Midway through the second act of Regina Taylor's "Drowning Crow," there is what might have been a powerful exchange between a mother - an actress facing the crises middle age brings in a youth-obsessed society – and her son, a would-be writer.
"You would never have survived as a Negro," the mother (Alfre Woodard) says angrily to her son (Anthony Mackie).
"You don't know what it took to become 'black,'" she snarls. "You think Denzel Washington is Malcolm X ...You don't know who you are because you don't remember where you came from, and I don't know who or what you are, either ..."
In these lines is a strong sense of cultural history, and it reads very well on paper.
But it has no dramatic impact on the stage, because the play surrounding it is so hollow.
"Crow" is a contemporary revision of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull," a play about late-19th-century upper-class Russians playing at Art.
Chekhov depicts a group of people enjoying the benefits of a society that is stagnant and decaying but affords them a life of privilege.
Taylor sets "Crow" on the Gullah Islands, off South Carolina, where the mother, Josephine, has come to visit her ailing brother.
The island has some characters who seem like throwbacks to the time when the islands had a separate culture. Others are young people who translate the action into hip-hop.
Nothing really jibes.
Taylor follows the action of "The Seagull" fairly closely, but because she does not give her characters clearly delineated pasts, her play seems more like parody than something with its own life.
Woodard, a canny actress, makes Josephine's anger palpable and lends her considerable charm, but the character never coheres.
Nor does the son, Constantine, who goes from a failed conventional artist to a hip-hop superstar. Mackie gives the part great intensity, though the writing undermines him.
Peter Francis James has an appropriately wistful, aristocratic quality as Josephine's lover, who is attracted to the same local girl, Hannah, as Constantine. (Aunjanue Ellis plays Hannah very affectingly.)
Ebony Jo-Ann has strong moments as a maid with divining powers. Paul Butler handles the underwritten role of the brother well, and Stephen McKinley Henderson and Roger Robinson bring dignity and grace to provincial characters.
The substitution of a crow for a soaring seagull suggests some of the problems rewriting Chekhov presents.
Taylor might have succeeded more if she had flown farther from her source.
Gurgle, gurgle . . . Regina Taylor's contemporary rewrite of Chekhov's "The Seagull," which she calls "Drowning Crow," opened last night at Manhattan Theater Club's splendidly restored Biltmore Theater and promptly sank.
At least its drowning lived up - or died down - to its title.
Enough of Chekhov's plotline remains to prevent "Drowning" perhaps from being totally awful, but it is certainly an object lesson both in how not to write a play, and what not to do with Chekhov.
In principle, there is no real reason not to update the occasional classic, or to use earlier themes and the work of other writers. Shakespeare himself did it all the time, and later has had it done to him in dignified, corpse-like silence.
Yet, obviously, any new writer attempting a wholesale adaptation has to explore, excavate and rebuild on the old site.
The language needs to be provided with a fresh relevance, and not be merely a stupid and tedious version of an old classic that takes yet cannot give.
Chekhov's play about self-centered people behaving badly, with creative hope being crushed by carelessly efficient artistic accomplishment, is exquisite in its storytelling and dramatic imagery.
The original has its roots in Russia and its trunk, branches and leaves at the turn of the 20th century – its time and place seem to me central to its poetry, even crucial to its effectiveness.
Taylor disagrees and has set her play in a contemporary African-American community in the Gullah Islands off the coast of South Carolina.
The story is the same, but has been dumbed-down and jazzed-up in the most simplistically obvious of ways.
Chekhov's heroine, Mme. Irina Arkadina -Josephine Ark in Taylor's version - is a famous actress, and Chekhov raises a few theatrical allusions. Taylor splatters the stage with them, and they become about as meaningful as confetti at a divorce.
Josephine (she was named after Josephine Baker, natch) was once a member of the Negro Ensemble Company and later had a successful TV sitcom.
In Chekhov, a few mostly unknown names are dropped, but Taylor runs a mighty gamut from the Nicholas Brothers to Spike Lee, from Jack Benny's Rochester to Paul Robeson. This is not updating, this is nudging.
And when Nina, the young actress once as free as a seagull or here, I suppose, a crow, tells the doomed hero, C-Trip, that she is off on another bus and truck tour of "Rent," the references zoom down into bathos, and the audience giggles nervously.
The performances are merely adequate. Alfre Woodard, the show's star, suggests a weary charm as Josephine. The best work comes from Peter Francis James as Trigor, a stiff but convincing TV writer and lover of Josephine. As C-Trip, Josephine's performance-artist son, Anthony Mackie, is appropriately passionate and despairing.
"Drowning Crow" also suffers from director Marion McClinton's generally slack staging, which generates scant excitement.
Even the usually inventive set designer David Gallo seems to have lost his verve, permitting the play to look as dull as it sounds.
In its first season on Broadway, the Manhattan Theater Club is very welcome, but regretfully it has yet to find the stride that has made it one of chief adornments of the New York theater.
In Regina Taylor's ''Drowning Crow,'' the desperate updating of Chekhov's ''Seagull'' that opened last night at the Biltmore Theater, scarcely a line goes by that doesn't mention some famous person, brand name, song or show. Why, the production's sulky hero, Constantine (also known as C-Trip and played by the handsome Anthony Mackie), is a walking, flaking, suicidal collage of tattered quotations and references.
Speaking in Shakespearean blank verse, rap-style rhyme and, yes, even Chekhovian naturalism, C-Trip manages to cite everything from ''Hamlet'' to ''Sanford and Son,'' from Langston Hughes to Angela Bassett. But the well-known words he mentions most often come from a ditty he probably learned at the knees of his mother, a celebrated television actress (played by the celebrated film and television actress Alfre Woodard). ''Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,'' he says, looking anything but merry. ''Life is but a dream.''
Hold on to that bit of nursery-rhyme existentialism if you plan to make a case for the artistic merits of the ramshackle ''Drowning Crow,'' directed by Marion McClinton. You see, C-Trip also says, more than once, ''The play ain't representing life as it is or is supposed to be, but the visions in my head.'' And if you look at ''Drowning Crow'' as something taking place inside C-Trip's brain, the mess onstage starts to make sense. C-Trip is a terminally confused young man, and ''Drowning Crow'' is a terminally confused play.
More than a century's worth of cultural detritus has accumulated since Chekhov wrote ''The Seagull,'' and a staggering amount of it appears to have washed up on the shores of the glamorously restored Biltmore Theater. (That's the new Broadway home of the Manhattan Theater Club, which is having an especially ill-starred season.) In transplanting Chekhov's play from the Russian countryside of the late 19th century to the Sea Islands of South Carolina in 2004, ''Drowning Crow'' heaps on songs, dances and some snazzy technological effects to establish its frame of reference, which is really nothing less than the entire history of the African-American experience.
The drop curtain, which you see on entering the Biltmore, is covered with a projected photo gallery of faces of eminent black artists and politicians of the 20th century; snatches from songs like ''Mona Lisa,'' ''Black and Blue'' and ''Summertime'' pepper the dialogue, and the dazzling video projections (by Wendall K. Harrington) that accompany C-Trip's reveries show famous faces from other eras morphing into the play's characters. And for the last act, set in the room C-trip has appropriated for his study, the inventive set designer David Gallo has created what looks like a graffiti-covered shrine to the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
But to what end? ''Drowning Crow'' isn't the first time a playwright has decided to transport Chekhov's ''Seagull'' into another time and place. (I can think of three separate versions set in the Hamptons.) But while it may be the most ambitious instance to date of this kind of recontexualizing, Ms. Taylor's interpretation quickly succumbs to the life-draining fate that usually befalls such endeavors. The play becomes all about its time-traveling concept; the characters, in the meantime, exist merely to underline the author's cleverness in finding parallels between then and now.
In other words, high concept is really not a road to take with Chekhov, since his plays depend on a respect for the fluidity, perversity and subtlety of human personality. Any Chekhov production that works starts from the inside, not the outside.
While ''Drowning Crow'' has assembled a talented cast of impressive credentials, only a couple of these performers -- Paul Butler and Stephen McKinley Henderson, in supporting roles -- convey the rueful awareness of wasted life that staturates Chekhov's characters. Everyone else buckles and sinks under the weight of gimmicky relevance.
That, unfortunately, includes the normally first-rate Ms. Woodard as Josephine Nicholas Ark Trip, the vain, domineering actress who visits her ancestral island home with her younger lover, the once promising novelist Robert Alexander Trigor (Peter Francis James), who has sold his soul by writing sitcoms for UPN.
True to the original plot of ''The Seagull,'' the writer has an affair with -- and destroys -- a local girl, innocent little Hannah Jordan (Aunjanue Ellis), which really upsets her would-be boyfriend, C-Trip, Josephine's angry slacker of a son and an aspiring playwright, who in turn is loved by Mary Bow (the lively Tracie Thoms, who dresses like a hip-hop star -- all in black, of course, since, like Chekhov's Masha, she's in mourning for her life. We know that poor Hannah has really hit the skids when we learn in the last act that she joined (gasp!) a bus-and-truck company of ''Rent.''
''Drowning Crow'' is replete with such ungainly allusions. C-Trip, denouncing the old-fashioned plays his mother favors, says he runs from them ''like Fred Sanford from Aunt Ester, afraid of her ugliness crushing his brain.'' The Trigor-worshiping Hannah exclaims, ''He knows Samuel L. Jackson! Denzel! He plays golf with Tiger Woods!'' And Josephine, after watching her son's experimental drama, asks, ''Why couldn't he do excerpts from 'Seven Guitars'?''
Between the name dropping, Ms. Taylor, an accomplished actress and a venturesome dramatist, touches upon many weighty topics, including the ambivalent relationship between historical past and comfortable present for successful African-Americans. But none of these themes are developed, any more than the characters are.
The moments that have impact in ''Drowning Crow'' are brief and sputtering. There's a genuinely stirring scene in which Josephine succumbs to the tidal pull of a spiritual from her childhood, sung by the ensemble. And Ms. Ellis, who overdoes her character as a giggly virgin, fares much better as the hardened Hannah of the final scene. Mr. Mackie is a compelling and centered presence -- possibly too much so to portray such an aimless loser.
Early in the play, C-Trip delivers a screed against the conventions of traditional theater. (It's actually pretty close to what Constantine says in ''The Seagull,'' and it feels hopelessly out of date in 2004.) Your average play is ''like holy communion,'' he says. ''They serve us little scenes -- words -- an easily digestible moral -- we can smack our lips and rub our bellies on the way home.''
It's worth noting that the play C-Trip cites as an example is Lorraine Hansberry's ''Raisin in the Sun,'' to be revived on Broadway this spring in a production starring Sean Combs (a k a P. Diddy), another famous name that is taken in vain in ''Drowning Crow.'' It would seem that Ms. Taylor, or at least C-Trip, is throwing down a gauntlet.
But if you're going to make such a challenge, you had better be able to defend yourself. In assessing C-Trip's work, another character says: ''The words make an impression, but nothing more. You can't go very far on one impression.'' Which is a perfect summing up of the problem that is ''Drowning Crow.''
The desire to hang in with "Drowning Crow" is almost overwhelming. The cast of Regina Taylor's ambitious hip-hop spin on Chekhov's "The Seagull," which opens Thursday at Manhattan Theatre Club's Biltmore Theatre on Broadway, is fiercely committed to the playwright's dense confluence of styles.
After all, we remind ourselves whenever Taylor's modern characters on the Gullah Islands off South Carolina are entangled with uncanny grace into the desires of Chekhov's restless Russians of 1896, the "Seagull" does focus on a rebellious young theater artist's cry for "new forms!" And we think, how clever of Taylor to use a great tragicomedy about new theatrical forms to frame the conflicts of youth culture, mainstream white and black theater, and the disappearing voice of ancestral Africa.
After a while, alas, the struggle to process Taylor's overload of crossover references becomes more distraction than illumination. Whatever we are meant to understand from her bold and thoughtful new form-about-new-form gets buried in an onslaught of splattering name-dropping. What sometimes feels like poetry is more often pushed into florid contrivance and strain. There is a sense of emotional release toward the end of the lengthy evening but, ultimately, this is too much about too little and too late.
Marion McClinton, who has directed August Wilson plays with shimmering coherence, finds the heart in these characters more persuasively than he has melded styles. Reports of the play's premiere two years ago at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, in a different production, suggests it is possible to combine Taylor's language and multidimensional vision with clarity and imagination.
Here, we get the imagination. David Gallo's sets dangle aesthetically between Basquiat-inspired street culture and the twinkling languor of an island plantation. Every so often, Wendall K. Harrington's video flies black-history icons to the sky. Taylor has adapted Chekhov's metaphor of a white seagull into a crow. It is always an awkward moment in "Seagull" when the young, fragile Nina has to blurt, "I am a seagull! I am a seagull!" The lovely Aunjanue Ellis, here named Hannah, has it even harder when she must declare herself a crow.
Taylor's Chekhovian retrofit finds impressive parallels. Alfre Woodward deftly locates the complex ugliness and beauty in the famous actress -- here called Josephine Nicholas Ark Trip -- who has returned for vacation to her island home. Anthony Mackie has a powerful delicacy as her son Constantin – also called C-Trip -- who desperately wants his mother to approve his nonliteral performance art. Taylor cleverly avoids the melodrama of Chekhov's final scene by introducing C's suicide at the start, freezing the moment with the gun in his mouth and letting the rest unfold as flashback.
The main conflict involves mother and son, the old and the new. As in Chekhov, more than a dozen other characters share their yearnings while the world gets old. While the young man wants to become famous, his mother's lover, a sell-out star sitcom writer (Peter Francis James), wants to be taken seriously. A young island girl -- in a fascinating original performance by Tracie Thoms -- loves C, but C loves Hannah and she loves the older writer who destroys her "because he can."
Where Chekhov kept us interested in overlapping desires, however, Taylor keeps us merely overstimulated. Paul Tazewell's hip and pastoral summer costumes are particularly enviable, with a special fillip on the footwear. Taylor has added a two-man posse for C -- Peter Macon and Baron Vaughn -- whose dancing is more than backdrop. She also invented an old folk-African woman named Jackie, whom Ebony Jo-Ann embues with genuine wisdom.
We can handle the bits of songs, the rap and the spiritual and the pop. We also enjoy sorting out the political passions that keep butting into the conflicts about art. At times, the versifying language even reminds us of Sam Shepard's breakthrough rock-language play "The Tooth of Clime."
But it is hard to keep track, much less to keep caring, when the ideas are larded with opacity about Osama bin Laden and Tupac, "Porgy and Bess" and Angela Bassett, Spike Lee and August Wilson, Amiri Baraka and "Fred Sanford running from Aunt Esther." We miss what Stanislavski, Chekhov's gum at the Moscow Art Theater, called "the aroma of his emotion." After all of Taylor's overwriting, we are too worn out notice.
Unless Chekhov had foreseen the MTV era, he could never have envisioned some of the ideas and images informing Drowning Crow (* * * out of four), Regina Taylor's reimagining of The Seagull. But he would have recognized in the new play, which opened Thursday at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Biltmore Theatre on Broadway, such familiar fundamentals as dignity, heart and sex.
By sex, I don't mean the crotch-grabbing, flesh-flashing exhibitionism with which pop stars and TV executives have so cannily exploited our country's puritanical prurience. I'm talking about the kind of sensual expression that can make a soft touch or furtive glance infinitely more erotic than, say, a peek at a woman's bare breast.
Conflicts between the Real World-generation and baby boomers are, in fact, at the core of Crow, which focuses on a black family in present-day South Carolina. Alfre Woodard plays Josephina, a glamorous, solipsistic actress based on Chekhov's lrina Arkadina, and Anthony Mackie is her son, Constantine, who calls himself C-Trip.
Like Seagull’s Constantine, C-Trip is a sensitive writer who broods in the shadow of his elusive mother and pines for a woman who will be seduced by Mom's beau. As a child of hip-hop and the Internet, though, C-Trip crafts a different kind of drama, described by Josephina as "this new-school, Spike-Lee-joint-pretending-retro-Baraka.” Another character compares C-Trip to Tupac Shakur, reinforcing the obvious: that Taylor's melancholy hero is doomed.
Wendall K. Harrington's cascading video montages supplement such references and enhance the play's fever-dreamlike intensity. Ken Roberson's choreography and Daryl Waters' music lend additional vibrancy.
Yet Crow’s most compelling moments aren't sung or danced - not literally, anyway. Director Marion McClinton has proven his affinity for finding melody and rhythm in spoken words in his work with August Wilson. Though Taylor's writing isn't as dazzling, McClinton coaxes bracing star turns from Woodard and Mackie and supple supporting work from Paul Butler, Stephen McKinley Henderson and dynamic young actress Aunjanue Ellis.
Of course, you could just stay home and watch Nick and Jessica confront their own demons on Newlyweds.
But that's a tragedy I couldn't endure.
Manhattan Theater Club's season in hell, unhappily coinciding with its first season on Broadway, continues with this seriously incoherent production. Indeed, critical response to Regina Taylor's rambling riff on "The Seagull" may leave Lynne Meadow & Co. pining for those frosty December days when a certain TV star stalked out the door and into the headlines. At least then the bad press concerned disasters backstage, not onstage.
Chekhov probably has been subjected to more severe depredations than this ill-conceived production, even if none readily springs to mind. The story of the aging actress Arkadina, her troubled son Constantin and the naive young Nina, seduced and abandoned by Arkadina's lover Trigorin, has been transported from 19th-century Russia to 21st-century America. Long-suffering Chekhov has made many such journeys before, of course, but rarely has so much baggage been lost along the way. In effecting the transition, Taylor and director Marion McClinton seem to have mislaid -- oops! -- the entirety of the play's emotional content, not to mention its subtle but sure dramatic potency.
Set in the Gullah Islands of South Carolina, Taylor's adaptation substitutes contemporary African-American equivalents for Chekhov's down-at-heels aristocrats and aspiring artists. But in some ways the playwright has not taken a sufficiently free hand: It seems odd that Josephine Nicholas Ark Trip (Alfre Woodard), the cumbersomely renamed Arkadina character, remains an actress devoted to the stage. In 19th-century Russia, theater was hardly the specialized (or marginalized) art form that, like it or not, it has become today. When Josephine loftily refers to her long, storied stage career, you are tempted to question her sanity: Where, exactly, has she been performing for all these years to such eclat?
More ludicrous still is the notion that a young black man -- or a young white one, for that matter -- would devote his life to upending the constricting conventions of today's theater, as Josephine's son Constantin, or C-Trip, apparently does. Who would notice if he did? The prevailing air of unreality established by these details is little dissipated by making C-Trip a sort of rap playwright or performance artist. Why not just make him a rapper, or a musician, to begin with, and Josephine an aging R&B diva?
Not that Taylor stints on references to contemporary black culture. There's an allusion to a black actor, artist or sports figure on virtually every page: Halle Berry, James Baldwin, Paul Robeson, Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, Tiger Woods -- everybody but Janet Jackson's celebrated right breast gets a shout-out. But these incidental references feel cosmetic, as do many of the dubious and confused stylistic effects Taylor and McClinton have come up with to give the show a funky veneer of "street cred."
The first act, for example, opens and closes with pulsating rap numbers and splashy video effects. And Anthony Mackie's C-Trip acts intermittently as a sort of rapping emcee -- much of his dialogue is rhymed. (It is never explained how he can be narrating or writing a story that ends with his death.) But these attempts to slap some cool urban style on the Chekhov narrative seem more than a little desperate.
Only rarely does Taylor explore more deeply the manner in which the anomie and unsatisfied yearnings of Chekhov's characters could be meaningfully reconceived to suit the emotional dilemmas of black Americans. There are occasional references to an inherited sense of dislocation and submerged longing that can be traced back to their ancestors' violent separation from their homeland.
C-Trip and Josephine argue over how much she has compromised her dignity to assimilate into the larger culture. And the Trigorin character, called Robert Alexander Trigor and recast as a writer with both novels and TV series to his credit, also muses credibly on accommodations he's had to make to succeed in show business. (He spits out a hilarious joke suggesting what the initials UPN stand for.) But such insightful revelations are all too rare.
More damagingly, Taylor and McClinton fail to credibly establish the complex web of emotional relationships among the characters so central to the success of any Chekhov production -- even a pseudo-Chekhov production. The skeleton of the plot remains, and there are specific equivalents for each of Chekhov's characters, but the delicate emotional contours have all but disappeared. Aside from the central quartet, most of the characters are vaguely and unsatisfyingly drawn.
With McClinton seemingly preoccupied in trying to reconcile the stylistic divagations of the text, it's hardly surprising the performances are uneven. Mackie stands out for the clear-cut emotional veracity and sheer theatrical vitality he brings to his central role; although C-Trip is scarcely credible as a character, this powerful young actor imbues him with the vibrant emotional presence of a real human being.
Peter Francis James, as Trigor, deserves a special nod for being the only actor in tune with the special mood Chekhov requires. Sadly, Woodard, often a powerful actress on film and TV, is at sea here -- she overstates almost everything.
David Gallo's sets are inspired by the work of Kara Walker, an artist who uses mock-Victorian imagery to explore African-American culture and history. It's a smart and fitting idea on paper, but the effect is far too stylized, particularly for a production that could sorely use some grounding in reality, from any source.
On paper, in fact, the entire production might have seemed a clever idea. But on the Biltmore stage, the dream of illuminating a contemporary world with light borrowed from the past has, sadly, gone up in smoke.
That, at least, is sort of Chekhovian.