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Ivona, Princess of Burgundia

by Rich See

You are the universal irritant.
---Prince Philip to Ivona

Ellie Nicoll, Svetlana Tikhonov and Lilia Slavova
E. Nicoll, S. Tikhonov and L. Slavova (Photo: Ian C. Armstrong)

Scena Theatre kicks off its new season with the rousing, twisted Alice in Wonderland-like fable by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, Ivona, Princess of Burgundia. Director Robert McNamara's black and white world where everyone does what they are supposed to do and exactly how they should do it -- except for title character, Ivona -- reflects our own world and various peer communities. Almost entirely silent throughout the play, Ivona alternately cowers in fear and lounges in disdain at the rest of society in this absurdist comedy that points out how dangerous, yet ultimately freeing, being oneself can be. It's a very insightful offering in this time where political machines use ultra-patriotism to manipulate news media and to quiet opposing voices to their view points.

By simply ignoring the conventions and aspirations of the society around her, Ivona unwittingly --or purposely, depending upon your point of view -- incites the wrath and ire of her fellow townspeople. So much so, that she become the butt of their jokes, taunts, and scorn. Literally she becomes the scape goat for all their pent up self-loathing and fears. It's alternately sad, disturbing, and funny. When the philandering Prince Philip sees her and perversely decides to play a practical joke, the butt of the joke seemingly becomes the royal family much to their horror and dismay. As tensions and secrets are revealed, Gombrowicz shows how truly being oneself can be a disturbingly powerful force. The more Ivona ignores the royal family and their carefully constructed world to pursue her own child-like interests, the more the family becomes desperate to be rid of her presence. Becoming so obsessed, in fact, that asking the poor woman to leave or casting her out the door is no longer an option as each member fixates on exterminating her very existence. The play ends in a mind-numbing demonstration of rationalization and dis-ownership of action -- much the same way individuals will rationalize being rude in the grocery store or cutting in line at the bank.

Born to a well-to-do family in 1904, Witold Gombrowicz left Poland for Argentina right before World War II on a spur-of-the-moment decision. In Poland he had been viewed as a minor satirist, while in Argentina he lived on the fringes of the literary establishment. With Ivona, Princess of Burgundia he writes an absurdist piece long before Beckett and Pinter's works created a stir. Almost entirely unknown in Poland until 1957, when his work was suddenly allowed to be published. Gombrowicz was then just as suddenly banned when he received unexpected success. It then became illegal to even write about him, so it was not until the collapse of communist Poland that his work was extensively examined or read in his own native land.

Director Robert McNamara, Scena's Artistic Director, seems to have an innate sense of Gombrowicz's humor and view point. His cast has been precisely timed and uses both tone and physical humor to highlight the comedy. Mr. McNamara has set up a staging that is done entirely in black and white -- with only minor splashes of red. To off-set her from the rest of the cast as the play's only character in complete control of her actions and intentions, Ivona is dressed solely in white. All of her movements and vocalizations are done with deliberation, as if every thought and word is weighed before undertaken. Even her final scene is done with a deliberation and purposefulness that is shocking and heart breaking as she seems finally to have tired of the individuals who surround her and the joke with which she has been involved.

Konstantin Tikhonov's set is an example of how easy and fun crepe paper can be to change a room's atmosphere. The set while simple, has a warped Tim Burton feel to it with a skewed chandelier, fountain, and small furniture pieces. Alisa Mandel's costumes blend with the set perfectly and add their own absurd touches with hiked up pants legs, odd dresses, and Ivona's all-white ensemble layered in ropes to highlight her physical containment by the society that surrounds her which contrasts with the mental freedom she enjoys.

The entire cast shines in this production and each has a moment of sync with their character. Svetlana Tikhonov's Ivona is a perplexing title character. Is she mentally ill, autistic, or simply ignoring everyone around her? You alternately feel sorry for her and annoyed with her, much like the royal family that is obsessed with her. Ms. Tikhonov alternately brings out the child-like qualities, as well as the disdain and fear, so you are never entirely sure of Ivona's intentions. Christopher Henley's Prince Phillip is both a spoiled dandy and an unstable heir to the throne as he slowly descends into madness over his fiancée. King Ignatius, played by Allan Jirikowic, comes alive in Act Two as his character's unsettling indiscretions become apparent. When he says "I've been living with her so long I don't know anything about her" (in reference to his wife the queen) it becomes very apparent how all those royal marriages in history ended in war, bloodshed, and imprisonment. Christine Herzog's Queen Margaret is the evening's comedic high-point reciting amazingly bad poetry like a heroin addict getting a fix and imperiously denouncing the king for his various kingly imperfections. Ryan McGrath brings the small role of Simon alive as he demonstrates all the myriad ways Ivona can be murdered. Tel Monks' Chamberlain is an example of understatement as he voices everyone's fears and thoughts with statements like "We must avoid scandal at all costs." and "It's better to forget dead women. A dead woman is not a woman at all." And Irina Koval seems to relish her stiletto heeled, Marlene Dietrich-like role of Isobel, an odd mix of conscience and vanity, simultaneously primping in imaginary mirrors and telling everyone to leave poor Ivona alone.

Part of a year-long celebration of Witold Gombrowicz, this production is the East Coast, U.S. premiere of Ivona, Princess of Burgundia. It's a cerebral treat by a company devoted to European-style theatre and well worth a trip to the Warehouse's main stage.

Ivona, Princess of Burgundia
by Witold Gombrowicz
Directed by Robert McNamara
with Svetlana Tikhonov, Allan Jirikowic, Christine Herzog, Christopher Henley, Tel Monks, Irina Koval, Ryan McGrath, Jay Hardee, Ellie Nicoll, Lilia Slavova, Christopher Moss, Kim Curtis, Jamie Boileau, Christopher Moss
Set Design: Konstantin Tikhonov
Costume Design: Alisa Mandel
Lighting Designer: Lynn Joslin
Sound Design: David Crandall
Pike Design: Amy Schmidt
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with 1 intermission
A production of Scena Theatre
Warehouse Theater, 1021 Seventh Street, NW
Telephone: 703-684-7990
WED - SAT @8, SUN @3;$20-$25
Opening 09/09/04, closing 10/03/04
Reviewed by Rich See based on 09/15/04 performance
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