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[Herald Review] Classic play ‘Seagull’ brings authenticity, sincerity to stage

Lee Soon-jae's presence fills stage; So Yoo-jin, Jin Ji-hee performances shine

Feb. 3, 2023 - 12:38 By Hwang Dong-hee
Jin Ji-hee (left) plays Nina and Lee Soon-jae plays Sorin in “The Seagull.” (ARC Co.)

The classic tale of Anton Chekhov’s play “The Seagull” fills the stage for two hours and 10 minutes with sympathetic characters and their presence.

Classical plays suffer from the general prejudice that they are boring, but in "The Seagull" directed by 88-year-old actor Lee Soon-jae, the cast of veteran actors delivers Chekhov's message that still resonates with audiences today.

Set in a countryside mansion belonging to Sorin, a retired civil servant, the play starts with all 12 characters gathered at a lakeside park to see an unconventional metaphorical play written by aspiring playwright Treplev, Sorin's nephew. The play stars Treplev's muse, Nina, an innocent young woman who dreams of becoming an actor.

The gathering goes awry when Treplev’s play is met with general disapproval, especially by Treplev’s mother Irina, a fading actor, who dislikes his new style of theater. Irina is on a brief vacation visiting the ailing Sorin with her lover, Trigorin, a famous but indecisive novelist.

The scene hints at generational conflict and tragic romantic entanglements among the characters -- Nina falls in love with Trigorin, and Masha, the estate manager’s daughter, is enamored of Treplev. Melancholy surrounds their unrequited love.

At first, the 12-person play can be overwhelming trying to keep track of all the different Russian-style names and nicknames. But the narrative mainly revolves around four central characters -- Treplev, Nina, Irina and Trigorin -- and the twists and turns in their relationships.

Jin Ji-hee (left) plays Nina and Kwon Hae-seong plays Trigorin in “The Seagull.” (ARC Co.)
So Yoo-jin plays Irina in “The Seagull.” (ARC Co.)

Actor Jin Ji-hee playing Nina shines throughout. In the first two acts, Jin -- in a white dress -- stands out among all the others in drab-colored clothing. Jin’s Nina is full of youthful innocence. It’s a pleasant surprise to some who know her as the spoiled child character in the hit MBC comedy series “High Kick Through the Roof," which ran from September 2009 to March 2010. Jin convincingly plays the most dramatic character -- from lively to despairing Nina -- and makes the audience feel for her tragedy.

So Yoo-jin in the role of self-absorbed actor Irina also shows off her charm. Not wanting the limelight to be taken away from her, Irina humiliates her son. But So's portrayal of Irina's vulnerable side -- full of anxieties of someone whose beauty and fame have passed their prime -- arouses sympathy in the audience.

Those who come to see Lee's directorial debut would not be disappointed. The veteran actor, who began his acting career in the theater, also plays Sorin, a delightful and funny old man. His powerful presence on stage and directing finesse corresponds well with the character of 60-year-old Sorin, who looks back on life and all the unfolding drama with detached amusement.

Lee Soon-jae plays Sorin in “The Seagull.” (ARC Co.)
A scene from the play “The Seagull” (ARC Co.)

ARC Co.'s Korean production of "The Seagull" is faithful to the original play which was written in 1895 and premiered in 1896.

“Classics transcend time and places. … (I) wanted to introduce Chekhov’s play in its entirety, without omitting or adding,” said Lee at a press conference in December.

True to his word, each actor delivers formidable amounts of lines. Sometimes the monologues are full of literary expressions that are not easy to grasp. And the 130-minute running time without intermission does require a certain amount of concentration.

The star-studded cast of familiar faces from television brings solid acting to the stage. In the double cast crew, Lee Hang-na also takes on the role of Irina; Oh Man-seok and Kwon Hae-seong play novelist Trigorin; Kim Soo-ro plays Yevgeny Dorn, Sorin’s doctor; and Lee Kyung-shil plays Polina, the estate manager’s wife who has an affair with Dorn.

The stage sets, costumes and antique props help evoke the atmosphere of the old country estate. An LED screen at the back of the stage features a rippling lake, flickering lights and soaring birds. The classical architectural style of the Universal Arts Center, located in Gwangjin-gu, eastern Seoul, also suited the 19th-century story.

“The Seagull” runs through Sunday.