Publick Theatre explores artists' lives in summer season

Francis Ma

To paraphrase Samuel Beckett, human suffering is funny.

If you like the brand of comedy that comes with television shows like “The Office” and “Six Feet Under,” then the Publick Theatre has a play for you.

Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” is a play full of comical moments that walk the thin line between funny and sad. Think of the numerous uncomfortable moments produced by Michael Scott on “The Office” and you’ll get the idea.

“I think those television shows have helped people key into the kind of humor that’s in ‘The Seagull,’” says Artistic Director Diego Arciniegas. “Before we as a culture generally liked our funny characters on the shallow side. Chekhov’s characters are so incredibly deep that you are laughing at people’s misfortunes, but also having a reaction to it.”

The dark comedy will open the Publick Theatre’s 38th summer season at the Christian Herter Park in Brighton through September. For many theatergoers, the Publick productions have become a sort of tradition in the same vein as the annual family barbeque and hearing the Boston Pops play the “1812 Overture” at the Esplanade on the Fourth of July.

Over the years, the Publick has learned how to deal with the outdoor elements, both manmade (the WBZ news helicopter) and natural (weather is such a huge factor that Arciniegas is an amateur weatherman).

“There’s something special about putting on plays outside,” says Artistic Director Diego Arciniegas. “We always make a point to choose a play that fits outside. For ‘Seagull,’ the action takes place on a countryside by a lake.”

This is a new translation by Arciniegas, which he says “filters out the Victorian experience from the British translation.”

That means less British and more Russian … at least in language.

“A good number of the translations of this play have been British,” explains Arciniegas. “Because of that, the dialogue was always spun a certain way.”

So in Arciniegas’ translation, when a character says “You’ve stepped on my favorite corn” (the literal Russian translation), the phrase gets turned into “You found my pet peeve.”

“I wanted to get the language out of the way and use vocabulary that was readily available for people,” says Arciniegas. “But in terms of emotion, I believe it’s the closest to what Chekhov originally wanted.”

And the emotion is wrapped up in a dark comedy that focuses on four characters and shows the process, and the sacrifices, of creativity. It involves an aspiring actress, a celebrated author, and a failed playwright.

Arciniegas says Chekhov was interested in trying to explain what it was like for artists. He tried to sketch the ramifications of a life in art.

Sound a little down or too dark for you? Then wait for the Publick Theatre’s second offering, Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever,” which Arciniegas says is more of the stereotypical summer theater offering (read: it’s a crazy comedy).

“It brings four unsuspecting house guests into this house full of artistic wackos,” laughs Arciniegas. “It shows a family living in and around, and working with art. It also shows the price people pay for a life of art.”

See a theme here? Arciniegas admits he didn’t realize the commonalities the two productions had till later, but now fully embraces the questions and issues about the role of the artist in society.

Both plays suggest that surviving in the arts is tough. They both pose the question, “Is it worth it?”