A Broadway engagement of The Seagull with this cast might have ticket sales--and prices!--to rival those of The Producers. But this "Shakespeare in the Park" production remains free to the public; all you have to do is go to the park and wait in line to pick up your complimentary tickets. If "time is money," however, The Seagull is the most expensive show in town. The first person to arrive for the opening preview, Andrea Ciannavei, got on line at 1:00am, knowing that she would have to wait until 1:00pm to actually be handed tickets. And as previews for the The Seagull (which opens officially on August 12) have continued, the media have been filled with stories of far longer waits for those precious tix.
How did Ciannavei pass the time she spent on line? "I've smoked one and a half packs of cigarettes in 12 hours," she told me. "I also wrote in my journal." One person toward the back of the line said that he had finished editing chapter seven of his novel; if a book by someone named Jeff Couchman ever hits the New York Times best-seller list, know that the magic happened in Central Park.
Jordan Thaler, resident casting director for the Public Theater, reports that he has seen people playing cards and sleeping on line for previous Delacorte productions but never doing anything "unusual." The Seagull has changed all of that. One unfortunate woman suffered heat stroke while waiting on line for the chance to attend the first performance; witness Kate Coffman swears that she heard her scream out, "If you're gonna carry me away in an ambulance, I'd better get two tickets!" Remarks Coffman: "People will do anything for a ticket--even in the throes of death." (Incidentally, Coffman will be appearing in the upcoming Broadway musical Sweet Smell of Success, starring John Lithgow. When asked how it would feel to understudy a role in this production of The Seagull, she replied: "It would be scary. But what an incredible experience!")
Most other actors on the ticket line shared her enthusiasm. Seth Resnick, an actor-slash-med student, once appeared in The Seagull in the role of Konstantin--or, as he describes it, "the part being played by Philip Seymour Hoffman." He was waiting on line with Joelle Arqueros, an actress who says she "will do anything for Christopher Walken." Lying on pillows and a comforter, she had, in fact, slept overnight in Central Park for the privilege of seeing her favorite star in The Seagull. But the police have since begun to enforce loitering laws, and such camping out is no longer allowed; those who want to spend the night waiting for tickets have to do so outside the park, near the West 81st Street entrance.
It should be noted that some working actors are less than thrilled by the celebrity cast of the show. Shakespeare in the Park is run by the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, an organization dedicated to up-and-coming talent; Joe Papp, the father of Off-Broadway theater and a patron saint of starving artists, founded the Festival. Does an all-star cast smear Papp's legacy, exactly one decade after his death? Daniel Simon, who recently played Flute in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, feels that it does: "I think it's a bunch of actors indulging themselves at the Public Theater," he says. Jordan Thaler insists that this is the first he's heard of such criticism. "One of the most exciting things about our legacy is that we have emerging talent working right alongside people with established careers," he says. But it is true that the "emerging talent" in The Seagull is grossly outnumbered by those who have already emerged.
One person who scored a ticket for the first performance of The Seagull put this controversy into perspective: "Whether or not they're stars, they're phenomenal actors. It's not like they cast John Travolta!" Except for Natalie Portman and Deborah Monk, every member of the company has previously performed for the Public Theater, and five of them (Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, Kevin Kline, Stephen Spinella, and John Goodman) have more specifically been in past Shakespeare in the Park productions.
Developing artists shouldn't worry that the Public is beginning to ignore their presence. "The Seagull's star cast is an aberration," says Carol Fineman, the theater's publicist. Jordan Thaler confirmed that nobody from the theater was involved in the casting process for this particular show: Director Nichols assembled the ensemble at an informal reading, off Public property. Then playwright Tom Stoppard retooled a translation of the script for these seasoned actors.
That script is one of the iconic Chekhov's undisputed classics. A tale of ill-fated love, changing times, and broken families, The Seagull debuted at the Moscow Art Theater over 100 years ago, launching a move toward naturalism that influenced modern theater and film in more ways than we can imagine. This should be reason enough for people to line up to see the play. But did I mention that this Seagull also has a rather noteworthy cast...?