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Jane Enkin

 
Play Review by Jane Enkin: Ivanov by Anton Chekhov

by Jane Enkin, February 3, 2014

Ivanov

by Anton Chekhov

adapted by Michael Nathanson

presented by Winnipeg Jewish Theatre

at the Berney Theatre, Rady Jewish Community Centre

 

January 29 - February 9, 2014

 

As an arts reporter, when I lack objectivity I should at least make full disclosure. So, to be clear, I was more or less crying from the first moments of Ivanov to the last. It's that good, that moving and disturbing.

 

Michael Nathanson has made a fascinating adaptation. Although this is not an Anton Chekhov play with which I am familiar, the two drastic changes from the original are easy to see. Nathanson has set the play in Winnipeg in 1952. The props and costumes by Maureen Petkau are detailed, spot-on period pieces. The stripped down, simple set design by Darrell Baran works well as a frame for the acting and for the moody video backdrop designed by James Jansen. However, the adaptation is not just a matter of sets and costumes, and the references in the script to the weather and current events. The lives of these characters are deeply affected by their time and place.

 

Even more effectively, Nathanson changed a script with eighteen characters to one with four. Before I saw the play, I wondered how that could work. Since seeing the play, I think it must be strange to be distracted by the concerns of anyone beyond the tight circle of these four.

 

There is no going home for any of these characters – to family, to health, to the ideal of romantic love or healing love. Ivanov, the title character, marvels that his parents traded a life in frozen Russia for one in bleak, frozen Winnipeg. Immigrant experience has shaped his life, and even more so that of his wife, Anna. Looking back, she sees her upbringing with an idealized glow, in her warm, traditional Jewish family. In Winnipeg, to her naive young eyes an integrated place without anti-Semitism, it made sense to follow her heart and marry a non-Jewish man. By the time the play begins, she is cut off from her family. Because of what in our time we recognize as his profound depression, she feels cut off from Ivanov as well.

 

In a way I found disturbing, depression in the world view of the characters in Ivanov is seen as a moral failing. Ivanov himself is often the one who dwells on how much he hurts other people, how self-centred and damaging he is. When he briefly surfaces for air and gasps that actually he is in pain, he is quickly reminded that he is selfish and mean. Even those who care for him remind him of what a morally flawed person he is; they just think that they can change him.

 

Director Mariam Bernstein has called for outsized, dramatic, open performances that are far beyond realism. The characters wear their hearts on their sleeves. Even when their words are restrained, even when they choose silence rather than answering a question (and in their commitment to “speaking the truth,” silence is often the only option), their faces and body language are eloquent. Words are shouted, whispered, poured out or doled out through clenched teeth.

 

For all four actors, this approach is electrifying. Arne MacPherson makes Ivanov a fascinating character, compelling and disturbing. He carries immense emotional weight in the play, with huge outbursts, deep lows and perplexed highs, reaching out then shunning anyone's attempts to respond. Sarah Constible is luminous and delicate yet gritty at key moments. Laura Lussier as Sasha can be bubbly one moment and sinuous, sensuous the next; she is always powerful and commanding. Paul Essiembre's character, Peter, is more complex and self-contained than the others, so the passion Essiembre conveys is all the more remarkable.

 

Director Benstein calls this “a brutal journey;” I found the journey very much worthwhile.

 

 
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