If you’re down with the blahs, at the end of your rope, listen to Anton Chekhov. These days he’s speaking at the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston. The current production of Chekhov’s Ivanov tries hard to shake off depression, i.e., three hours of griping about man’s sorry state. As you’re ready to slap melancholic Nikolai Ivanov upside the head, you’re faced with more than enough reasons for the Russian Revolution: class struggle, racism, clannishness. But boredom is the big word here—as one poet said, “Life, friends, is boring”: everyone suffers from ennui, the world is steeped in lethargy, no one can escape its grasp.
In this melange of twisted views, gossip, money hoarding, and poverty, a gaggle of old women playing cards brings welcome comic relief with their bantering antics. The merry widow Marfutka (Susan O’Brien) with her lipstick, petticoats, and wonderful contralto singing, titters with a dancer’s precision. Frail Anna (Gita Tanner) brings you to the brink of sorrow as her tuberculosis advances—footnote: Chekhov died of tuberculosis—and the young doctor (Mark Wilson) seems to be the only character with basic moral values, yet he’s trapped in a chasm—footnote: Chekhov was a practicing physician.
Here you have it: nineteenth century pre-revolutionary Russia, locus of passion and violence; of haves and have-nots; of yelling and simpering.
As one of Chekhov’s first plays, Ivanov struggles to its feet. It brilliantly foreshadows the themes and techniques that will define his greatest dramas, the four supreme plays he wrote at the turn of the century. This production of Ivanov goes on too long for me. While the first half of the play dazzles, the second half drones.
Happily, its women characters sizzle with wit and precision. Longing for someone to listen to the doctor, you want to rant with Misha (Jay Reed), the count (Bernie Beck), Pasha (Stephen Fedo), and the bridge-bantering Dmitri (Brent Barnes). Alas, the male lead, Ivanov (Dan Smith), is sort of one-dimensional. If he sometimes seems not to know his lines and, like several of the male characters, seems to read from a script he’s holding, this may be part of the production’s ambitious adaptation. And remember the axiom in Chekhov: when you see a gun on stage, it will go off—in Ivanov there are two guns: a rifle at the start and a handgun at the end.
In Piven’s theatre space, an expansive room with large windows that afford the characters natural light in real time, often the actors forget that whispers need to be heard, a soft voice needs to be projected as clearly as a loud one.
It was an honor to be in the room with Chicagoland theatre icons, Joyce Piven, Sheldon Patinkin, and “Nancy” Cusak, along with the legendary Piven company. Ivanov continues through June 29 with performances Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30, and Sunday at 2:30.
For more information and tickets go to the Piven Theatre Website or call:847-866-8049
Piven Theatre is located at:927 Noyes St, Evanston, IL, next to the Noyes Street "L" station.
Photo Credits: Chris Zoubris