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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review

By Simon Saltzman

I've been playing Hamlet and you've been playing Ophelia.---Ivanov to Sasha
Joel de la Fuente (as Ivanov) & Daniel Dae Kim (as Dr. Lvov)
(Photo: Ching Gonzalez)
One of the rules to follow at the theater is never to listen to people in the lobby who have opinions; especially those who like to say things like "It's supposed to be Chekhov's worst play."

The National Asian-American Theatre Company (NAATCO) production of Chekhov's Ivanov does offer sufficient evidence of it being one of the most difficult to fathom, as well as to perform. Some opinions were presumably changed when Kevin Kline essayed the title role in a splendid, if imperfect, production at Lincoln Center in 1997. On a much smaller scale, this no-frills contemporary staging under the direction of Mint Theatre Company Artistic Director Jonathan Bank, may be most notable for its all-Asian casting, but it does rise on occasion above the merely perfunctory.

This production also marks NAATCO's fourth Chekhov production in its 15-year history, including The Harmfulness of Tobacco, The Cherry Orchard, and 3 by Chekhov. Not having seen them, I cannot attest to their quality, but based on the tenuous results of this production, I can only say that more back-study and preparation is needed before another attempt is made to stage any more significant Russian dramatic literature.

Unfortunately there is trouble from the outset with the lack of dramatic focus in Joel de la Fuente performance as Ivanov, that sad and relentlessly melancholy penniless landowner, one of Chekhov's most elusive central characters. What the otherwise personable de la Fuente is offering is the kind of bewildered performance that suggests he has just begun to delve into the ways that Ivanov is conceivably empowered and propelled by the sheer force of his growing despair. So far, he has only one wa —y down pat. . . looking lost.

Bank's perfunctory comedy-first-tragedy-last direction of this rarely performed 1887 play (written when the author was 27), is best appreciated in the chatty, almost farcically driven scenes. If he is unable to finesse anything beyond superficial interaction among the players, Bank does manage to prompt a few moments that provoke laughter.

While it is true that Ivanov doesn't measure up to the standard that would be set by the master playwright's final immortal foursome that culminated with The Cherry Orchard, it is, arguably, a comic melodrama of the first order. In a mix of bitter satire, brutal drama, and a social sphere rampant with its abject ennui and overt anti-Semitism is the anti-romantic hero who is no longer in love with his dying tubercular Jewess wife Anna. This is a role that the attractive Deepti Gupta fills with tears and sniffles to spare. Despite being consumed by guilt, Ivanov cannot stem his growing infatuation with Sasha, the daughter of Lebedev, the local councilman. This is hard to fathom given Michi Barall's spiritless presence, as Sasha. Spiritless is also the best way to describe Mia Katigbak as Lebedev's wife Zinaida, a professional money-lender to whom Ivanov is indebted. Although we are told of Zinaida's merciless greed, Katigbak's low-keyed acting prevents her character's viperfish personality to surface.

Although Ivanov is evidently plagued by the ethical decay and moral corruption he sees among the bored and self-absorbed Russians whom he watches dispensing vodka as freely as idle gossip, about the only way de la Fuente confronts this is by putting his head in his hands or reading a book. The actor assumes a measure of reality as he contemplates his personal and professional failures and in his fourth wall breaking asides to the audience -- all as his estate goes to rack and ruin. A high-pitched confrontational fight with Anna is a welcome change of mood.

If the earthy, ironic, and playful tones that the young Chekhov uses in Ivanov seem incompatible, think how the mature Chekhov retained that mix in his more substantial plays. After seeing this early play you will never again say that Chekhov wasn't a master of funny dialogue. You will be hard pressed not to laugh aloud at the righteous moralizing of the young doctor, particularly as played by a relentlessly stupefied Daniel Dea Kim. There are also those inherently funny moments initiated by the crass bellowing of estate steward Borkin (Orville Mendoza), and the mean-spirited blathering of the no-account Count Shabelski (Stephen Park).

C.S Lee's perpetually confounded yet sympathetic Lebedev, Virginia Wing's humorously intoned observations as the aged family retainer (think Molly Picon) and Mel Duane Gionson's digressions as the gambler Kosykh offer increasingly interesting portraits as the play progresses. And Rochele Tillman was able to get the heartiest laughs of the evening, as that "bon bon and Turkish delight" Martha, the Count's betrothed.

If the play must end on a tragic note, one that seems arbitrarily contrived no matter who stages it, Ivanov will, nevertheless, hold your interest. With its vivid depiction of a despairing figure lost in a small petty world fueled by vodka and fired by avarice, Ivanov is resplendent with dazzling dialogue and intriguing characters. If only the current company could have gotten a firmer grasp of its unique Russian soul.

Given the obvious budget limitations, set designer Sarah Lambert provided a long metal table, some chairs, benches and cabinets that were cannily moved about to suggest a change of locale. Stephen Petrilli 's lighting and costumer Elli van Horne contemporary styles are fine. Sound design by Jane Shaw included some flavorsome Russian folk songs. However, it always seems a little sad when a Chekhov play isn't allowed to evoke the elegant, dimming esthetics of this lost world.

For links to other productions of Ivanov, other chekhov plays and background information about Chekhov, go to CurtainUp's Chekhov page.

Written by Anton Chekhov (adapted from a translation by Paul Schmidt)
Directed by Jonathan Bank
Cast: Joel de la Fuente (Ivanov), Orville Mendoza (Borkin), Stephen Park (Count Shabelsky), Deepti Gupta (Anna), Daniel Dae Kim (Doctor Lvov), Mia Katigbak (Zinaida), Rochele Tillman (Martha Babakina)Mel Duane Gionson (Kosykh), C.S. Lee (Lebedev), Virginia Wing (Avdotya Nozarovna), Michi Barall (Sasha).
Set Design: Sarah Lambert
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli
Costume Design: Elly van Horne
Sound Design: Jane Shaw
Artistic Associate: Nancy Kim
Technical Director: Evan Scholssberg
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission
The Baruch Performing Arts Center's Bernie West Theatre, 17 Lexington Avenue at 23rd Street,646 - 312 - 4085
From 5/20/05 to 6/08/05; opening 5/23/05
Mondays - Saturdays at 7:00 pm, and Saturday matinees at 2:00 pm
Tickets: $15 to $19.
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on the May 23rd performance
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