United Players has done it again—tackling a classic play with a big cast, something that our larger professional theatres wouldn’t dare (and couldn’t afford) to do, and presenting it with sufficient skill and flourish that we leave the theatre delighted at having had the chance to see it. This is one of Chekhov’s earlier, lesser works, not even Three Sisters or The Cherry Orchard (when was Vancouver’s last professional production of either of those brilliant plays?), but a piece still very much worth doing and seeing.
Chekhov is notoriously hard to translate and Tom Stoppard’s new translation of Ivanov is a delight—colloquial, fluid, and clear. He has also rearranged events so that the end is now in the beginning and the rest of the play flashes back. Chekhov is also very difficult to perform because the histrionic emotionalism of his characters tempts actors to simply play big, and because his plays walk a fine line—and often cross back and forth—between tragedy and comedy. Ivanov is a comedy with a tragic character or maybe two at its centre.
A landowner whose attempts at experimental farming have left him bankrupt, Nikolai Ivanov (Noel Johansen) no longer loves his wife, Anna Petrovna (Tamara McCarthy). The neighbours and a censorious local doctor (Paul Ferancik) believe he married her only for her money. She was a Jew whose family disinherited her when she converted. So everyone now thinks he’s leaving her because she has no money and pursuing Sasha (Olesia Shewchuk), the young daughter of the wealthy family to which he owes most of his debt, for her wealth. None of this appears to be true, and Ivanov (who compares himself to Hamlet) is in an agony of melancholy and despair. To make things worse, Anna Petrovna is dying of consumption.
An ensemble of comic characters swirls around the central players: Borkin (Tony Rein), the scheming manager of Ivanov’s estate; Count Shabelsky (Ashley O’Connell), a penniless aristocratic hanger-on; Marfa (Liza Fletcher), a wealthy widow who would like to be Countess Shabelsky; Pavel Lebedev (Dave Campbell), the sympathetic father of Sasha, a little too fond of his vodka; and various buffoonish relatives, guests and servants.
Some of the comedy is crudely overplayed and sloppily directed but much of it is delightfully wacky, with O’Connell’s Count and Campbell’s Pavel earning high honours. Campbell is particularly skillful at navigating the tricky serio-comic Chekhovian border, especially in a beautiful scene where he offers Ivanov money to pay the interest Ivanov owes to Pavel’s wife. He also has some of Chekhov’s (or maybe Stoppard’s) best lines. “You turn life into a kind of modern art gallery,” he says to Ivanov. “I look at it and I don’t know what to make of it.”
It is hard to know what to make of Ivanov. He’s a charismatic guy, having won the affection of the play’s two most substantial women—McCarthy and Shewchuk make Anna Petrovna and Sasha very solid, credible, and attractive. Hamlet-like in his melancholy, his acute self-consciousness and self-criticism, and his loathing of the world in which he’s living, Ivanov is also self-dramatizing and not quick to take responsibility for what he does, or in some cases doesn’t do. Johansen nicely captures most of these contradictions and effectively navigates the Chekhovian spectrum of Ivanov’s character, from comic futility through melodramatic teeth-gnashing to the tragic despair of a man “sick to the soul.”
Kudos to director Victor Vasuta for pulling this all together. One thing he could do to improve it is cut the length of the scene-changes in half, or just cut them. It’s not worth the time or effort it takes many hands to frequently readjust John R. Taylor’s simple gray flats to indicate a change of locations, even when the changes are covered by Jeff Gladstone’s funky Russian sounds.