On Stage • Russian soap opera triumphs in the hands of translator Tom Stoppard

In Hollywood terms, Anton Chekhov is hot again, and Portland's got him: Award-winning playwright Tom Stoppard's dazzling translation of 'The Seagull' is playing at Portland Center Stage.

It's great timing; an outdoor production triumphed in New York last summer with stars Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, Marcia Gay Harden, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Goodman.

And 'Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey,' Janet Malcolm's loving travelogue through Chekhov's Russia and also his psyche, is hot on the book charts.

Having planned this production some time ago, Center Stage director Chris Coleman is delighted, both with the coincidences and with the substance the play offers.

'Chekhov's way of observing behavior was markedly different than writers before him,' Coleman said. 'I've been looking for a way into 'The Seagull' for some time. I thought I had an inkling of the center of the play, then I read Tom Stoppard's translation and it was heaven.

'A lot of Chekhov translations get stuck between Russian and English, and it's murky Ñ it doesn't sound the way people talk. Stoppard created very simple language. It comes out easily, it maintains the ambiguity, and it's fun.'

'The Seagull' remains remarkably modern, despite its age: 106 years old. Chekhov considered it a comedy, but Konstantin Stanislav-sky, the director who put it on the map, thought it a tragedy.

Stanislavsky had a better case, since his 1898 Moscow production was a huge success, whereas the first Ñ as a comedy Ñ was a flop. Stanislavsky's low-key 'method acting' approach was a complete change from the excessive, declamatory style that preceded it.

In any case, the story itself needs no exaggeration. The contrast between how the characters see themselves and how the world views them is the stuff of life.

For example: Konstantin thinks he's a gifted writer. His diva mother, Arkadina, considers him a dilettante. Konstantin loves young actress Nina, but she loves egotistical middle-aged novelist Trigorin É who is bound to Arkadina. Masha loves Konstantin and ignores her husband, Medvenko.

Bearing in mind that these people can't Ñ or won't Ñ voice their feelings clearly, you can see the play has the makings of an elegant soap opera, replete with denials, admissions, secrets and lies.

Coleman has assembled a veteran cast, including Tobias Anderson, Michael Fisher-Welsh, Joan MacIntosh, Michael Newcomer, Michele Mariana, Scott Coopwood, Sharonlee McLean and Christine Calfas.

And they have plenty to work with.

'I think there's something unique about the writing in the play,' Coleman said. 'Stoppard is Czech, and he understands the Slavic nature of it. It feels like a beautifully orchestrated improvisation.'

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