Trinity Rep's "Ivanov": Russian to Judgment

The Cast of  "Ivanov"
(photo: Mark Turek )

Anton Chekov might have loved Trinity Repertory Company’s first production of the new season, his 1887 play “Ivanov”. Or hated it. Or both. One of his five masterworks (the others being “The Seagull”, “Uncle Vanya”, “The Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard”), it was his first serious full-length play, a portent of themes to come, with its portrayal of Russian melancholia. Is there in all literature a more unhappy and morose bunch than the Russian landed gentry? They wallow in their incessant boredom, even in Chekov’s “comedies”. So it surely is with this production, in a new translation by Trinity’s Artistic Director Curt Columbus, directed by Associate Director Brian McEleney, who also helmed last season’s opener, the memorable “Grapes of Wrath”. As Columbus has stated, this version stresses the playwright’s “humor and humanity…the comic Russian Hamlet”; this may have guided him into this very misguided translation so heavily dependent on anachronistic colloquialisms and verbal slapstick. McEleney notes that Chekov is “just writing about a guy, ‘Johnson’ and (everyone‘s) strange, neurotic, contradictory behavior”; this may account for the fact that the usually incomparable resident company seems to have been directed to enact their roles with the hyperventilated pacing of a runaway train.

Chekov shows what the consequences might be when people rush to judgment about one another, whether about marital unfaithfulness or suspect motives. The story revolves around the titular Nikolai Ivanov (Stephen Thorne), whom we first meet in a bathtub (and briefly naked outside it). He is a landowner and government official with a wife of five years, Anna (Rebecca Gibel), whose prior renouncement of Judaism and conversion to Russian Orthodoxy cut her off from the dowry he expected to acquire. He is deeply in debt to Zinaida (Anne Scurria), a moneylender married to district council chairman Lebedev (Timothy Crowe), with a daughter of marriageable age, Sasha (Marina Shay) who happens to be infatuated with Ivanov. Anna’s moralistic physician, Dr. Lvov (Richard Williams), has told Ivanov she is gravely ill (from her first appearance, with very conspicuous consumption) and must go to the Crimea to recuperate. Lacking the funds to enable this, Ivanov flirts with the idea of a connection with the wealthy Sasha, then actually does flirt with her, overseen by Anna. She confronts Ivanov with his infidelity, which angers Ivanov enough to reveal the true nature of her illness to her. A year later, after Anna’s death, Ivanov and Sasha prepare to marry, but Lvov intervenes, publicly accusing Ivanov of marrying solely for her money. Others, even those who had been critical of him in the past, come to Ivanov’s defense, even challenging Lvov to duels. This excites Ivanov, who takes out his gun. As with several subsequent Chekov works, this “comedy” ends up, paradoxically, a tragedy. As the playwright himself put it, his characters are “just as complicated and just as simple” as in real life; he felt that “misfortune follows happiness (or the other way around). A person cannot be healthy and cheery through their entire life…one must be prepared for anything, and consider everything to be inevitably essential.” Rather than question the existence of God, he affirmed: “No, believe in man!” This would appear to exclude one huge segment of society, incidentally, given the play’s explicitly anti-Semitic remarks, which are, sadly, straight out of Chekov’s text.

The cast, directed to speak for the most part in a declamatory way, are all clearly having a ball and remain in character throughout, especially Scurria, who is a delight to watch, and Thorne, doggedly intense. Also featured in the ensemble are Stephen Berenson, Angela Brazil, Barbara Meek, Fred Sullivan, Jr., Joe Wilson, Jr., Ian McNeely, Sophie Netanel, Andrew Polec and Max Wolkowitz. All act, as they have obviously been directed to do, with a total lack of restraint or subtlety, at least until the last moment, which is suddenly simple and quietly effective. The technical creativity includes Scenic Design by Michael McGarty, who also designed “Grapes of Wrath”, with a minimalist set (fortuitous, since after the cast got through chewing it, there wouldn’t be much of it left). The Original Music Composition by Ian McNeely is in harmony with the free spirited nature of the direction, but contributes little other than length. The Lighting Design by John Ambrosone (fairly harsh), opulent Costume Design by Toni Spadafora (cleverly tattered as though from a consignment shop, which would have been entirely appropriate for everyone’s strained finances), Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz, and Voice and Speech Direction by Thom Jones, are all contributive to the overall feel of the play. The proceedings are certainly never boring, just numbing, even given this shortened version of the play. Your enjoyment of this production will likely depend on your tolerance for broadly played farce. Very broadly. In this approach, unceasingly, skit happens.

Chekov’s writing, described today as realism which essentially marked the initiation of modern theater, fundamentally resists pigeon-holing. As might an unpredictable party guest, he may be witty one moment, melancholic the next. In our own times such a personage might even be blithely viewed as bi-polar. As the youth of today might put it, or for that matter any number of Chekov’s characters in this translation might languidly remark, “whatever”. (Perhaps the only colloquialism they missed). Somewhere, Chekov is smiling. Or crying. Or both.

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