note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Joe Coyne
by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Yuri Yeremin
Reviewed January 16, 2000 by Joe Coyne
The Director, Yuri Yeremin has made a trade off - imagery for language in the American Repertory Theatre's production of "Ivanov". It was a masterful trade. With the de-emphasis of the specific language, you have a work written in parts by the ensemble, Paul Schmidt (the translator) and Yuri Yeremin. Yeremin does get program credit as adaptor. And oh yea, by Anton Chekhov. Unlike any Chekhov I have ever read, the script has Americanized vocabulary and phrasing and does not sound like upper class speech. The creation is an imagmatic Chekhovian world, splendid in its imagery and dazzling in its overall effect. All this attached to Chekhov's first full length play written in 1887 when he was 27 years old. You have to wonder would this play still be in production had Chekhov not written a couple of other plays.
It is an impressive piece of visualization. Fields of haystacks beside a stream are replaced by a birch forest creating a penetrable sense of depth just beyond the main house. Voices sound and you see the lanterned villagers coming from the mansion, single file. A table in the middle of the path, a tripod for the painter. Essential metaphors for the dreamlike setting. More bicycle riding than the Big Apple. And surreal it was: impressive, and at times overwhelming. Scott Bradley and John Ambrosone were the set and lighting designers and gain credit for an accomplished bit of work. As you entered the theater the entire stage and side areas were in use, which at the Loeb Drama Center is an extensive area. A well, a boat in a stream, bicycles, covered haystacks within a raked black box and stage curtains lying on the floor. A bell, soon to be a loud bell, hung at center stage and was rung repeatedly to announce the prologue delivered by the residents. The set altered into several birch forests, a swing traveling out toward the audience, the backlighting of the neighboring estate, more bicycling riding. An encounter between Ivanov and his mistress with side lighting had the appearance of just their boots dancing. The funeral cortege, dark and brooding, shuffles unitedly across the stage eliminating the bodies. Such visuals were captivating and most of them worked and worked well. With these images alone, you wonder how much more of the dialogue could have been eliminated and still a story told. As with many of the ART productions, it is the images that remain long after the language has faded and with "Ivanov" it happens all the faster.
The original version of "Ivanov" was written on something of a bet in ten days and was rewritten six times. While most were minor, the major rewrite occurred some years later for a St. Petersburg production where the original satirical parody was recast in a darker and more serious tone. Two of the cartoon characters were eliminated as was the solution to Ivanov's problems. The attempt to lighten up the rigid Dr. Lvov as the bearer of the social messages Chekhov wants us to hear failed and Dr. Lvov is still the most disliked character on the stage, delivering the most truthful of messages.
Ivanov (Arliss Howard), the formerly brilliant socially adept insider, has withdrawn and retreated to become a bored, restless impotent outsider. Anna, his wife, is a converted Jewess deeply in love with him despite his observed flaws and she is faltering. She has been disinherited by her parents and her former society. She now has tuberculosis and is dying from the disease. Ivanov has been told that she needs to relocate and needs rest from torment. He has discovered (in this production he has been discovered by) the aggressive Sasha, daughter of his major debtor. And discovered they were by Anna in an embrace and in subsequent romantic encounters. Ivanov spirals downward into despair and self hatred. To quote Chekhov, "the story in complicated but not stupid."
Ivanov and his wife, Anna, have few normal lines together. He is always in anguish and unable to discuss events. He directs few actions toward her and continually shows us his tormented soul, self questioning his state of mind. Ivanov sitting in the boat or languishing in the hammock seems passively disturbed like an actor in anguish over his lines. He comments on his age and his impotency, his nothingness, his inability to know what is going on. At the risk of using a word many readers see as a soluble label with a chemical interdependence, Ivanov is suffering from severe depression. His neighbors offer solutions to his problem as they see it: economic freedom, environmental consideration, social conditions, individual rights and the like. This positioning of his baseless unhappiness is considerably lessened when Howard delivers a shirt wrenching monologue with awareness in front of the curtain. Anna (Debra Winger) has a weakened part and tells us of her love, of their former love and twice tell us, "Flowers come back every Spring, why not love?"
It is not until the last moment of the play when we see Ivanov pleased with himself as he is about to take an action. He is back in the saddle and ready to make a decision, to end suffering and grief, freed at last from the blankness in his heart.
The lectures discussing the production indicated the usual rehearsal procedure was not followed. The process (44 days) resulted in masterful performances by several of the actors and with a better product: cherished memories of rehearsal attempts . Told not to memorize their lines, the actors were three weeks at table talk determining weather conditions, the events leading up to their specific entrances, the reason characters were making such and such a statement. Time was then spent engaging in "etudes" or studies of improvisation around and about the subject to see what might work. What worked was retained. The process is described as working your way back to the lines. The lines being the amalgamation of the different texts with major cuts. Add a prologue devised from the cut dialogues and finally convert the remaining dialogues within the script into monologues delivered in front of the curtain. This also converted the audience to the perceived hearer and actors into narrators.
It is a return to the 19th Century melodramatic elements of the initial production with an abundance of gestures to visualize the action. Excessive yawning of the village guests make sure we know they are bored and boring. Eliminated also were the Jewish jokes and some of the other anti-Semitic material.
The actors have been allowed to capture their characters in individual actions and mannerisms. Dr. Lvov (Benjamin Everett) has his medical nerve hammer pounding his chest and in use a bit too much. Borkin (Will Lebow) who manages Ivanov's estate works the crowds as a vaudevillian rather than just saying hello when he visits. Lebow "shows" us why Borkin is the successful scam artist. We wonder how long Count Shabelsky (Alvin Epstein) can direct sugar into his tea? These are the masterful performances.
The effect of imagery over language is less realism and more symbolism. The more you drive the symbols, the less human is the story of people. Debra Winger trying to get an answer out of Ivanov moves away from his tormenting brain and into the "forest" - an assortment of thin, single birch trunks without leaves hanging throughout the stage. We can see the lines attaching them to the rigging and we do not object. Without calling attention to her romp, she has each of these birches swinging, walking among them as Ivanov follows her to deliver a killer of a line. You see the forest perhaps primeval creating an adept illusion and Ms. Winger is of less concern as she delivers some words. This lessens the ability of the audience to identify with the character on a human scale and makes the play less dramatic, though more theatrical. The best element of this play, the surreal metaphoric setting and set, defeats our concern with the story. Such beauty at a considerable price and considering the play, worth it.
It continues at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge until January 23, 2000