In Regina Taylor's desperate updating of Chekhov's "Seagull," scarcely a line goes by that doesn't mention some famous person, brand name, song or show. The production's sulky hero, Constantine (also known as C-Trip and played by Anthony Mackie) is a walking, flaking, suicidal collage of tattered quotations and references. Speaking in Shakespearean blank verse, rap rhymes and even Chekhovian naturalism, C-Trip alludes to everything from "Hamlet" to "Sanford and Son." But the well-known words he recites most often come from a ditty he probably learned at the knees of his mother, a celebrated television actress (played by the celebrated film actress Alfre Woodard): "Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, 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. C-Trip also suggests that the entire play is made up of "visions inside my head." From this perspective, the mess onstage starts to make sense. C-Trip is a terminally confused young man, and "Drowning Crow" is a terminally confused play (2:30). Biltmore Theater, 263 West 47th Street, (212) 239-6200. Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets: $51 to $81 (Ben Brantley).
THEATER REVIEW; Chekhov Shows He Can Rap
By BEN BRANTLEY
Published: February 20, 2004
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.''
By Regina Taylor; directed by Marion McClinton; sets by David Gallo; costumes by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Ken Billington; sound by Dan Moses Schreier; video design, Wendall K. Harrington; original music, Daryl Waters; choreography, Ken Roberson; Presented by the Manhattan Theater Club, Lynne Meadow, artistic director; Barry Grove, executive producer. At the Biltmore Theater, 261 West 47th Street, Manhattan.
WITH: Peter Macon (Yak), Baron Vaughn (Okra), Anthony Mackie (Constantine Trip a k a C-Trip), Curtis McClarin (Simon), Tracie Thoms (Mary Bow), Paul Butler (Peter Nicholas), Aunjanue Ellis (Hannah Jordan), Roger Robinson (Eugene Dawn), Stephanie Berry (Paula Andrea Bow), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Sammy Bow), Alfre Woodard (Josephine Nicholas Ark Trip), Ebony Jo-Ann (Jackie) and Peter Francis James (Robert Alexander Trigor).