nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
May 23, 2005
One of the hardest things about staging Chekhov is getting the tone right; most of his plays are something like existentially bleak comedies, or bemused tragedies, or perhaps oddly depressing social satires. Humor, pathos, and a fairly cynical view of human nature need to mingle without sliding into either farce or melodrama. Ivanov is not one of Chekhov’s best plays—but the National Asian American Theatre Company’s production of it makes it worth seeing, because they understand Chekhov. Director Jonathan Bank and an excellent cast capture the elusive, evocative emotional landscape of Chekhov, where the audience never quite knows whether to laugh or cry.
The play is about the tribulations of Ivanov, an impoverished gentleman farmer, and his social circle: his uncle, the even more impoverished Count Shabelsky; his Jewish wife, Anna, who is dying of tuberculosis; Anna’s self-righteously honest doctor, Lvov, who despises Ivanov for his neglect of his wife; Borkin, the hapless estate manager; the Lebedev family (a local dignitary, his moneylending wife, and their daughter Sasha); and assorted Lebedev hangers-on.
But ultimately, it’s a psychodrama about Ivanov himself. He has lost all savor for his life—he’s fallen out of love with his wife, and hates himself for it; he’s lost interest in the pastimes that used to engage him; he can barely stand to hear himself speak. He tries to rediscover his passion for living in an affair—and, after Anna’s death from tuberculosis, in an engagement—with Sasha, fifteen years younger than he. Sasha romanticizes Ivanov’s angst, and feels drawn to him because she wants to rescue him—but in the end, she cannot save him from himself.
In the clear light of the 21st century, we could confidently label Ivanov clinically depressed—and what’s most striking about the play is how modern its characters’ psychological states still seem. Bank has gotten his actors to reach up through the sometimes stilted language, through the archaic details of the plot and setting, and really grab the audience’s emotions. As Ivanov, Joel de la Fuente captures every nuance of a man who sees himself turning into someone he despises, and only despises himself more for not being able to stop. De la Fuente forces us to understand Ivanov’s pain in exquisite detail, without holding back on any of the character’s worst qualities: his self-absorption, his selfishness, his violent temper and childish outbursts.
Similarly, Michi Barall, as Sasha, brings fresh, contemporary emotional truth to a character whose main problem is (fortunately for 21st century women) somewhat outdated—she’s a bright, capable young woman who has only one choice available in her life: whom to marry. Sasha wants to love someone terribly flawed, because propping up her husband is the only purpose she can imagine for herself—and the more of a mess he is, the more of a challenge she has. And Barall beautifully captures the heartbreaking optimism of the bad choices we make in love, and the unshakeable confidence of youth, that ability to rationalize even the most incredibly destructive of those choices.
The actors in the comic roles have a harder job, as their characters don’t have such strong emotional arcs. But they also give solid performances, finding the wry social comedy in Chekhov, especially Orville Mendoza as Borkin, the estate manager who’s always one get-rich-quick scheme away from striking it big, and Daniel Dae Kim as the priggish Doctor Lvov.
One interesting casting choice is Deepti Gupta as Anna, another somewhat thankless role. Anna is both dying and terribly neglected by her husband. She’s also been disowned by her Jewish family after converting to Christianity to marry Ivanov. Gupta brings out the inherent pathos and loneliness in Anna’s plight. Much is made in the play of Anna’s Jewishness, and where the rest of the cast is East Asian, Gupta is an Indian actress who stands out physically, which calls attention to Anna’s alienation from the other characters.
The production elements are simple and serviceable; the costumes by Elly van Horne stand out, especially in the wedding scene that closes the play.
Ivanov was Chekhov’s first full-length play, and it’s definitely lacking in the complexity and sophistication of character development that would make his later plays so justly renowned. (Although it does exemplify Chekhov’s famous aphorism that if there’s a gun on stage at the top of the play, it must be fired in the last act.) The comic elements are a little too broad; the exposition can be heavy-handed; the tragic elements reach toward tear-jerking. If you’re looking for the best of Chekhov, Ivanov might not be your first choice, but if you’re looking for a Chekhov production that speaks to the emotions of a modern audience, this Ivanov is an excellent place to start.