Wednesday, November 28, 2012

“Ivanov” - A powerful look at despair and emptiness

By Judd Hollander
Photos by Joan Marcus

Guilt, despair, the malicious sting of unsubstantiated gossip, the fine line between comedy and pathos, and the endless boredom of a never-changing existence. All are explored in Classic Stage Company's very enjoyable production of Anton Chekhov's Ivanov.

Ethan Hawke, Joely Richardson
Ivanov (Ethan Hawke), the owner of an estate in 1880s Central Russia, is in the grip of melancholy, and is disgusted with himself for being so. For months he has done nothing but bemoan his mental state, as well as his inability to function. While all this has been going on, the estate has moved deeper into debt. Ivanov also refusing to listen to any suggestions by estate manager Borkin (Glenn Fitzgerald) about how to get things back on sound financial footing. Adding to Ivanov's pain is the fact that his wife Anna Petrovna (Joely Richardson) is dying.

At least some of Ivanov's problems stem from the fact that he has fallen out of love with Anna, a woman who loves him still. Yet theirs was more than just a simple marriage. Anna was Jewish, renouncing her faith when she married Ivanov, subsequently being disowned by her family. Thus, she brought no dowry into the union. Since that time there have been persistent rumors that Ivanov feels be made a bad deal with his marriage to Anna, and is waiting for her to die, or is perhaps hastening her to the grave, so he can find better arrangement. This is a feeling brought out time and again by Dr. Lvov (Jonathan Marc Silverman). Also living on estate is Shabelsky (George Morfogen), an aging Count and uncle to Ivanov.

Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance
Ivanov's only relaxation are his nightly sojourns to the estate of Lebedev (director Austin Pendleton subbing for Louis Zorich the night this reviewer saw the show), where he listens to the various news of the day. While Ivanov has a good relationship with Lebedev, the same however cannot be said of Lebedev's wife Zinaida (Robert Maxwell), who is determined Ivanov at least begin to pay the money he owes them. Also usually present at these gatherings is Babakina (Stephanie Janssen), a wealthy young widow, and Sasha (Juliet Rylance), daughter of Lebedev and Zinaida, who has long had eyes for Ivanov.

The one continual theme in the play which stands out above all others, is the terrible boredom the various characters experience day after day, and how most of them will do anything to escape from it. Such attempts ranging from entering marriages that one knows are ill-advised, to business machinations that seem plausible, but upon closer look are not on the up and up. There is also continual verbal beating about the bush by just about every character present, as if all of them are afraid or unwilling to express exactly what they want or how they feel.

All of what is being presented could be played as straight drama, but Pendleton, using Carol Rocamora's translation of the work, takes great care to leaven the piece with humor, showing not only the depths of these people's despair but also the foibles and follies of those involved. Morfogen is quite good with this, with his endless diatribes on doctors and to a lesser degree lawyers, showing perhaps what Chekhov felt about those professions. Borkin also works well in this regard, the playwright using the character for a satirical attack on business.

Ethan Hawke
Hawke is brilliant in the title role, showing Ivanov to be a man perpetually in the grip of hopelessness, as well as contempt for himself for how fall he has fallen - such as when he must beg Zinaida and Lebedev for an extension on his loan. Yet at other moments, his mind is filled with clarity, understanding and finally, an ultimately resignation to his situation. An object of pity and pain, Hawke is able to make this tormented character seem quite real. There is one moment where, after having an epiphany of sorts, one wants Ivanov to put everyone in their place and finally reclaim his life once and for all. At the same time, he is not above prejudices when it comes to his wife, and is also clearly affected by the malicious gossip that seems to always follow him.

Morfogen is pointedly hilarious as the dry-witted Count. A man who, like Ivanov, has almost no money of his own. A level-headed and principled sort, Shabelsky is not above getting involved in some of Borkin's schemes, such as a marriage to the much younger Babakina, simply as a way to relieve the boredom his life has become. Morfogen also has good chemistry in his scenes with Pendleton, their characters supposedly very old friends.

Pendleton does a nice job with Lebedev, a man who attempts to see the humor and/or reality in most situations and prefers not to lose his temper or even give advice unless forced to. His reactions during a heart-to-heart talk with Sasha are good examples of this. As for his directorial work, Pendleton demonstrates a good understand of the characters and helps to create the right atmosphere for the play. While the work has a tendency to drag at points, especially in the middle third of act one, which is mainly just two people talking to one another for a long time, once things shift from the Ivanov estate to Lebedev's, the play picks up steam and never weakens again.

Fitzgerald is nicely overbearing as Borkin. At first a seemingly astute and level headed businessman, it eventually becomes obvious he is a budding manipulator trying to better things for himself, and not above pushing people into situations they not might care for if the financial rewards were ultimately worth it.

Silverman wonderfully exudes malevolence as Lvov, the real villain of the piece. A so-called honorable man who despises those who don't live up to his definition of morality, it is by his actions that much of the gossip about Ivanov has spread throughout the province. Lvov at times going to methods and extremes that would, in today's world, be considered harassment.

Richardson is fine as Anna, though she has little to do other than continually ask Ivanov why he no longer loves her and play the pious, dying wife. However she does very well in playing a scene, one dripping with spite, when she thinks Ivanov has not been true to her. On the other side of the coin, Rylance nicely portrays Sasha as an earnest and naive young woman, drawn to the shattered wreck Ivanov has become and believing wholeheartedly that it is her duty to fix him.

One other actor definitely worthy of mention is James Patrick Nelson in the role of Kosykh, a local tax officer who's perennially complaining about what happened to him during a game of cards. His continuous descriptions and explanations of the event, and everyone else's reactions, quickly become highly comical.

The set by Santo Loquasto of the Ivanov and Lebedev estates are good, costumes by Marco Piemontese come off well, and the lighting by Keith Parham and sound design by Ryan Rumery all works nicely within the context of the story.

Funny, poignant and powerful, if occasionally a bit dragging at times, this well-executed production of Ivanov is very good indeed.


Featuring: Ethan Hawke (Ivanov), Glenn Fitzgerald (Borkin), Joely Richardson (Anna Petrovna), George Morfogen (Shabelsky), Jonathan Marc Silverman (Lvov), Roberta Maxwell (Zinaida), Anthony Newfield (Grigory Grigorich Gost), James Patrick Nelson (Kosykh), Annette Hunt (Avdotya), Anne Troup (Gavrila), Stephanie Janssen (Babakina), Louis Zorich (Lebedev), Juliet Rylance (Sasha)

Written by Anton Chekhov
Translated by Carol Rocamora
Set Design: Santo Loquasto
Costume Design: Marco Piemontese
Lighting Design: Keith Parham
Original Music and Sound Design: Ryan Rumery
Hair Design: Paul Huntley
Managing Director: Jeff Griffin
Production Stage Manager: Joanne E. McInerney
Production Supervisor: Production Core
Casting: Calleri Casting
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Directed by Austin Pendleton

Presented by Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Information: 212-677-4210 ext. 10 or
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes, One Intermission
Closes: December 9, 2012

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