Review: SiNNERMAN Ensemble’s “Ivanov”

For love or money

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SiNNERMAN Ensemble presents

Ivanov

by Anton Chekhov
directed and adapted by Sheldon Patinkin
thru November 7th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

SiNNERMAN Ensemble’s production of Ivanov rises above most in that it is performed in the style in which Anton Chekhov wrote the play: not as an adaptation set in modern times or filled in with action to keep the attention of the modern audience, but set instead in the 1800’s, a time dull in activity but vibrant with conflict underneath the passive text and assumed action taking place off-stage. The complex characters portrayed by the lead roles makes this Anton Chekhov play a play worth seeing at Viaduct Theatre, as the ensemble rises to the difficult challenge of maintaining Chekov’s dark tragic feelings with the wittiness of Ivanov’s comedic comments on life.

Ivanov_4 Anton Chekhov’s Ivanov tells the story of self-loathing land owner Nikolai Ivanov (Jeremy Fisher), whose wife is dying of tuberculosis and who is drowning in personal debt. Once a desirable young man – fun, kind and respected – Nikolai married Anna (Cyd Blakewell). After marriage, Anna converted from Judaism to Russian Orthodox and therefore was denied her large family inheritance that many neighbors claim is the only reason Nikolai married Anna in the first place. Stuck in a depression that he cannot shake Nikolai sulks and is unmoved by Barkin’s (Ryan Martin) constant ideas to acquire financial prosperity and The Count’s (Sean Bolger) pleas for companionship or at least entertainment. The honest doctor (honest to the point of being self-righteous) informs Nikolai of his wife’s terminal diagnosis. No additional sadness sweeps Nikolai, for he has already reached an emotional bottom, and – respecting the doctors bluntness – he opens up to him about his own depression and lack of empathy for his wife.

These Chekhovian Characters are played well in the opening scene, especially by Jeremy Fisher as Ivanov and Johnny Russel as the doctor. They have a dark, even-keeled yet sullen personality with a tint of humor in their lines, reflecting the absurdity of life.

Nikolai’s depression doesn’t keep him from gallivanting off at night to a party at the Lyebedev’s estate where his new wealthy attraction Sasha is celebrating her birthday. As the repartee repeatedly drones on about how bored they are (via comical comments on their unfulfilled lives), Nikolai and Sasha are intimately conversing. Once they believe that they are finally alone Sasha and Nikolai are caught in an adulterous kiss by Anna who disobediently followed her husband to the party.

True to Chekhov’s style, the drama (or fight) between the three love interests takes place off stage. Still together with Anna, and trying to be a better man, Nikolai avoids Sasha until two weeks later when she comes to his estate to see him. Sasha, played by Sue Redman, gives an intriguing speech about why women are attracted to whiny desperate men and plays the martyr by telling him to stay with his wife, but with Anna’s illness and Ivanov’s sinful tendencies there is still a lot to play out.

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The set, designed by Jacqueline Penrod, is able to switch from the outside porch of Nikolai’s property to the inside of the Lyebedev’s upper-class home. In the opening scene Nikolai sits void of emotions at his simply crafted chair and table on the wooden front porch of his wooden home with the eerie death cries of an owl. The outside porch is designed too similar to that of a ranch and there is not much in the set that shows the countryside in which the play takes place. When the wooden walls are removed the depth of the Lyebedev’s living room is shown with a large dining table in the back for the guest to play cards and open space to converse while entering and exiting through the back door. The family room is up front with two couches facing each other (so the eligible bachelors can gaze at the eager young ladies) and a chair at top where Pavel Lyebedev (Howie Johnson) sits in his complacent bliss.

The wardrobe designed by Frances Maggio brings more to the plays atmosphere than the stage design, with dated clothes that have the sense of the 1800’s when this play was written, and all dressed in black as if it were a funeral when outside of Ivanov’s estate.

The main characters of SiNNERMAN’s production are talented – keeping the plainness in Chekhov’s characters while also bringing to life the complexity behind their lives. Chekhov has written no complete villain or saint. We cannot empathize with Nikolai because we do not trust his character, but yet we also do not know if he actually has malicious intent; he may be the victim of gossip and bad luck.

Cyd Blakewell delivers a fantastic performance as Anna; tired, desperate for attention and naive to the true feelings of her husband. She speaks with great drama allowing the humor in her ignorance to hit the audience subtly as Anna herself has no idea that what she is saying sounds ridiculous. Her defense for her husband makes one feel pity for the mistreatment and neglect that she has endured.

For a Chekhov fan, this play is a chance to see one of his lesser known plays, and SiNNERMAN’s performance is worth seeing. It is performed by the book, and the brilliance of Anton Chekhov is supported well by the talented lead actors. Some of the supporting actors/actresses come off a little cartoonish and out of character, but overall this is a quality performance from a very cool theatre company. This is not a play for someone looking for a lot of physical action or even a lot of verbal action, but the conflicts are there and you will be surprised in the way Chekhov’s plays can entertain.

Rating: ««½

Ivanov is playing at Viaduct Theatre, 3111 Western, Chicago, through November 7th.

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