nytheatre.com review by Shelley Molad
June 10, 2009
A playwriting teacher of mine once said that people are mostly interested in plays that are about love and death. Chekhov was well versed in both, and there is not one of his plays in which these themes are not prevalent. Ivanov is Chekhov's first full-length play, and laid the groundwork for his later and more popular works, including Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, and The Seagull. As one of Chekhov's lesser known plays, it's a pleasure to watch Miscreant Theater Company valiantly tackle it.
In a new adaptation, assembled by company members Jacob Knoll, who also directs, and Jeff Barry, who plays Ivanov, Miscreant Theater Company manages to nicely pull off a faithful yet refreshing take on the play. The story revolves around anti-hero Ivanov, an estate manager and county council member in his early 30s who battles with depression, as his wife Anna, a Jewish convert, is dying of tuberculosis. While Miscreant states that their intention is to investigate the "underlying complexities of hatred and love along with Chekhov's depraved sense of humor," it seems that here is where they have both hit and missed some marks. I don't think that Chekhov ever meant for his characters to hate each other. True, Ivanov has fallen out of love with his wife—it is implied that he married her under the false impression that he would inherit a dowry from her family—but Ivanov does not hate Anna; he resents her and feels guilty that he cannot love her or take care of her. Meanwhile, Anna's doctor, Lvov (Matt Scanlon), urges Ivanov to take his wife to rest in the Crimea. Ivanov cannot afford to take her because he owes a large sum of money to the Lebedevs, where he prefers to spend his time playing cards and arousing the attention and charms of Lebedev's ripe, 20-year-old daughter Sasha. Lvov, an honest and rigid man, accuses Ivanov of neglecting his wife and acting selfishly, but it is also implied in the text that Lvov has feelings for Anna, which is why Ivanov's behavior disturbs him so. Miscreant seems to glaze over this; it doesn't seem apparent that Lvov is hiding feelings for Anna; if he is, he hides them too well, and love in Chekhov's plays isn't meant to be downplayed. Characters do try to conceal their feelings, but often reveal themselves when they no longer can.
Most commendable about this production is the staging; with the audience seated on three sides, against the walls of the space, the characters effortlessly play to every side of the room, even utilizing some of the chairs along the walls, acting in such proximity to the audience that it's amazing how well they maintain concentration. The playful staging allows for characters to enter and exit simultaneously from various locales at opportune times, which really gives the illusion of events continuing offstage while the action proceeds onstage. The only disadvantage of the staging is that some of the intimate scenes between two characters are difficult to see, depending on what angle you are watching from.
The staging seems to best suit the action-filled scenes or those involving the ensemble, which includes such lively characters as the widowed and wealthy landowner Martha Babakina (Stephanie Bratnick), who is pursued for her money by the old Count Shabelski (William Bogert) and Ivanov's estate manager, Borkin (Brad Lee Thomason). The doll-like Lauren Orkus, who plays the fervent Sasha, has her moments, particularly in a seductive scene with Ivanov, but oftentimes comes across as whiny instead of impassioned. Barry plays Ivanov's depressive nature well, but as a character, Ivanov is difficult to empathize with. Ivanov can't find happiness because he doesn't know what he wants in life, and he doesn't know who he is, so he chooses to punish himself. But, by doing so, he punishes everybody else. And for this, it makes it difficult to care about him. One of the most effective but difficult scenes to watch is when Ivanov tells Anna (Emily Robin Fink) outright that she is dying. Fink's utter display of degradation, as she accepts her fate and husband's inability to love her, is painful to witness.
What makes this play complex is that it's hard to understand Ivanov's determination at such a young age to accept utter defeat, when he has the option of being relieved from it. When, in a touching scene, Lebedev (Jy Murphy) offers Ivanov money to cover his debt, he refuses it. Likewise, after Anna dies, and he is finally able to marry Sasha, Ivanov breaks off the engagement on their wedding day. Despite our disapproval of Ivanov's uncouth behavior, the chaos that ensues around him provides the show's highlights. We laugh, though characters are visibly suffering, because there is an absurdism to it all, an irony in the misfortune brought forth by love and the respite achieved by death. Chekhov leaves us without a denouement; nothing is resolved or settled, and we are left in astonishment of human irrationality.